Category Archives: adverbs

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.

Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.


Intensifiers don’t intensify

What do “very,” “awfully,” and “rather” have in common?

They are adverbs.  True.  Anything else?  They are meant to intensify a word or idea.  True again.  Anything else?  Not sure?  Consider these sentences.

  • I’m tired.
  • I’m very tired.
  • I’m awfully tired.
  • I’m rather tired.

What is their difference in meaning?  Is “very tired” more tired than “tired”?  Is “awfully tired” more tired than “rather tired’?

The truth is that “very,” “awfully,” and “rather” are empty words.  They are meant to intensify, but they fall short.  They are like the second exclamation mark after “Wow!!”  Totally unnecessary.

We have many useless intensifiers in English.  “Really, “terribly,” “utterly,” “completely,” and “wholly” are some.

Here is my favorite quote about using intensifiers:

Mark Twain:  “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”


Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.


This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.


Avoid using adverbs for better writing

When we are in elementary school, teachers tell us to use adverbs. When we reach high school, teachers tell us not to use adverbs. What’s going on?

First of all, what are adverbs? Adverbs are parts of speech which describe verbs, adjectives, adverbs and whole clauses. Most of them end in –ly, such as quickly, obediently and awfully. (But not every –ly word is an adverb.) The most commonly used adverbs do not end in –ly and include words like not, seldom, never, today, very, more and less.The –ly adverbs are considered weak words by many writers because they tell, not show. For example,

  • Weak: The toddler walked quietly to bed.
  • Stronger: The toddler tiptoed to bed.
  • Weak: That baby is very tired.
  • Stronger: That baby could hibernate all winter.
  • Weak: The awfully pretty child looked at us flirtatiously.
  • Stronger: The dainty child beguiled us with her smile.

In each of these three examples, a weak adverb is replaced by a stronger, specific verb or adjective.

Another reason writing teachers say to avoid adverbs is because using them weakens ideas. The word “very” is a good example. In almost every sentence you can think of, when “very” is used as an adverb, the idea becomes weaker.

  • It’s very chilly out.
  • It’s freezing out.
  • That cake is very tasty.
  • That cake tastes delicious.
  • Rex is a very well-behaved dog.
  • Rex behaves well.

Some adverbs state the obvious. “The boy fell down.” Can a boy fall up? “Grandma hollered loudly.” Can Grandma holler softly?

We need some adverbs. We don’t have negative versions of most verbs, so the word “not” is the way to make most verbs negative. “Yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” provide crucial time information, as does “now” and “then.”  When we are organizing an essay, sometimes it makes good sense to start paragraphs with words like “first,” “next,” and “finally.”

As a general rule of thumb, adverbs which end in –ly are less organic to writing and should be eliminated or rewritten with stronger verbs. Adverbs which don’t end in –ly are harder to dismiss and might be essential to good writing.