Why the Adverb Isn’t as Dead as Mark Twain Would Like

This week’s video points out three reasons writers need to be even more dedicated in stamping out the dreaded adverb.

Video Transcript:

Perhaps the most famous condemnation of adverbs is Mark Twain’s, “If you see an adverb, kill it.” I’m going to take a wild guess and say that, right about now, you’re probably nodding your head in sage agreement. And, for the record, so am I. Off the record, I’m going to say ninety percent of authors would nod their heads. And yet, the adverb still lives!

I’m the first to admit the dreaded adverb still crops up in my work—both inadvertently and purposefully—just as I’m sure it shows up in yours. For that matter, it still makes frequent appearances even in the work of modern bestsellers. Most readers probably aren’t going to spot unnecessary adverbs and pick them out, but as authors, we get to be hyperaware of these things, for better or worse. For me today, it serves as a good opportunity for a reminder about just why it is Mark Twain has encouraged such hatred against the adverb.

Quickly, let’s just mention three reasons.

1. The unnecessary adverb is clunky. Saying a character spoke ponderously or slyly or hyperventilatingly is just awkward. It’s not the best way to use the language—particularly in association with dialogue, which should indicate these things within its own context.

2. The unnecessary adverb is deadweight. Every word counts. And adverbs can pile up fast. If a word doesn’t effectively advance the plot or increase reader understanding, it’s just going be a waste of space within the book. You’d be surprised how sleek and slim your manuscript can end up after cutting a couple thousand unneeded adverbs.

3. The unnecessary adverb is a mistake just waiting to be pointed out by all those hordes of hyperaware fellow authors.

Tell me your opinion: Do think the adverb is rightly hated?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Adverbs are just like any type of word: useful when used properly. You shouldn’t use “and” four times per sentence, you shouldn’t use only sentences with ten words in them, and you shouldn’t use adverbs after every dialog tag. But that doesn’t mean you should never use and, you should never use sentences with a length of ten words, or you should never use adverbs.

  2. No, I absolutely do not think the adverb is rightly hated. “Unnecessary” adverbs should be hated just as equally as any other “unnecessary” word — not more. The point I think should be discussed is the definition that “unnecessary” words are those which do not serve a rhetorical purpose, and cut those regardless of what kind of word it is. Outside that, can we stop for a moment and appreciate language? Can we stop writing our books as if we’re sorry to have to use words to convey our thoughts and ideas, and promise our readers to take as little of their time as possible? I keep hearing “slim, sleek, minimalist — don’t use anything beyond what’s absolutely necessary for your reader to kind of get the gist.” In today’s world of instant-stream movies, YouTube channels, and video games, if someone does pick up a book to read it, it’s because they want to. So let’s give them a beautiful book full of love of all parts of the English language, with words used intentionally with regard only to crafting delightful prose and not arbitrarily cutting out this or that kind of word.

    Just my take ^_^

  3. I learnt about the importance of writing with correct grammar and how to make money from writing by buying and reading Rob Colville’s “Words to Riches”

  4. I say all words in moderation, but adverbs even more so. 😉 If an adverb is the perfect word for that sentence, use it. If not, find another way of describing.

    I think the biggest problem with adverbs is their tendency to be redundant. A writer who’s trying to describe an action or a scene thoroughly, wanting to sweep readers away to another world with their brilliant prose, might write “He lightly caressed her arm.” Lightly is redundant here because caress implies a light touch. So–bad adverb.

    But saying “He lightly kissed her lips,” may be necessary to differentiate between a loveless peck; a tender first kiss between new lovers; or a full-on, tongue-sucking, moan-laced makeout session type kiss.

    I’m a firm believer that all words are a writer’s tools, and sometimes the perfect word is an adverb. Sometimes the perfect word is the word that is omitted.

    Chris

  5. @Sam: Totally agree. And, as a matter of fact, I have a great counterpoint guest post on the subject lined up for Friday. Stay tuned!

    @Daniel: Love the passion. Language is beautiful. And I admit I’m very partial to the English language (mostly because it’s the only one I speak…). Ultimately, I think Mark Twain would agree with you. The adverb gets a bad rap not because it’s inherently evil or useless, but because it’s so often misused and overused.

    @ratedKG: Thanks for the link! Will check it out.

    @ChiTrader: Couldn’t have said it better. The point here is that authors need to learn to analyze every word. We need to write it and weigh it. Is this word really necessary? Is it really the best word for the situation? This is true of all parts of speech, not just adverbs.

  6. I agree with the previous posters–if used correctly (and sparingly :)), adverbs can add a lovely effect and help shape a writer’s voice. It’s very much a stylistic choice, but it should be just that: a choice. It shouldn’t be something a writer just sticks in there because he/she didn’t know any better. Every adverb I use (and yes, I do still use them :)), I put in there because I like the effect it has on the sentence. There’s a certain cadence I’m going for and a certain feel and texture I want for that sentence. That said, I do watch myself to make sure I don’t have a ton of them cluttering up my paragraphs :). A little bit goes a long way.

    I think of it a lot like cooking–if I put in salt, I make sure I use the right amount so that it heightens the flavor, but doesn’t become so dominant that it’s the thing you taste, not the flavor of whatever I was trying to bring out.

  7. The salt-to-adverbs comparison is a good one (I just used it in a response to the video on YouTube, as a matter of fact). That’s how it is with so much of writing. It’s all a balance. Extreme measures in either direction create an inedible feast.

  8. I rarely use an adverb. In my early writing I used them a lot, but that got beaten out of me by a few sadistic readers. So I say, instead of an adverb, find a better choice. Instead of saying, “the stone dropped quickly to the ground” say, “the stone plummeted to the ground.” Stronger word choices make a stronger story.

  9. I recently read an excellent book written by an experienced author, the only downfall of which was a barrage of dialogue tag adverbs continually jarring me out of the flow of the story. In this case, stronger word choices (or, better yet, just allowing the existing words to stand on their own two feet) would have made for a much stronger reading experience.

  10. I think we should try to write nice tight sentences that convey the speakers feelings. Every now and again a character pops up that needs help with clarification of their feelings. In that case I have to decide to use the adverb or write two paragraphs explaining why the character might say what they did. If it is a character that only pops up once like the person standing next to your main character buying a muffin. She explains why she hates that particular flavor and an adverb helps especially if the main character is hoping the flavor will hide the taste of the poison she plans on sprinkling on the muffin.

  11. Choosing the correct language is all about balancing economy with rhythm. Sometimes a lush two paragraph description can be better, not only for reasons of clarity, but also because it fits the character’s voice and the needs of the story. But making that choice always has be the result of educated analysis.

  12. i’m with daniel above on this, anything “unnecessary” is the problem; the defining what is needed and what is not, may be more rigidly defined than needed –

    one thing for sure, this post brought out a lot of passion of opinion 😉

    that might be worth a few adverbs in itself 😉

    nice post k.m.!

  13. This is the problem with much of writing how-to. General guidelines can quickly become accepted as hard and fast rules – as, indeed, has happened with what Twain undoubtedly intended as a tongue-in-cheek statement. There are no unnecessary parts of speech (or punctuation marks, for that matter, with apologies to Vonnegut’s opinion of the semicolon). But there are ways of using them that are better than others. The adverb has the tendency to bloat and weaken otherwise strong writing. A good rule of thumb is to delete any adverb that doesn’t add something of importance to its sentence.

  14. Hated? Words hated? A good writer does not hate words. he loves words, or he would not want to use them appropriately, or wittily, or with gusto. Mark Twain was first of all a reporter, and he, with a number of other writers, advanced what we know as the modern style codes. Compare Mark Twain’s writing with Charles Dickens’ writing. They were nearly contemporary, but their styles were very different. Dickens was a master of using words appropriately, and he loved the way they sounded when spoken or read out loud. Adverbs can be delicious, when used well. However, they are qualifiers, and as such, as K.M. Welland said, they can weaken a sentence – you have to be careful with them.

  15. When it comes to writing, I am a fan of “show me” rather than “tell me.” Adverbs tend to fall in the “tell me” category. But to abandon them completely? I think not.

  16. I agree with the majority of the people in here. Use adverbs sparingly. Sometimes you have to include them to clarify, but most of the time they’re unncessary. I’m editing my WiP right now, and when I read my sentences I’m always asking myself: “Is there a better way I could say that?” 9 times out of 10 I’m able to improve upon my sentence. Though I’ll admit, sometimes that bloody adverb just has to stay.

  17. @Genevieve: Twain was no stranger to opinionated vim and vitriol (as his review of Pride & Prejudice reveals), but he was also a smart writer. Although I’ll take Dickens any day, I admit I would love to see what would have happened had Twain and Dickens edited one another.

    @Joan: “Show, don’t tell,” in all its variations, has become a seemingly black-and-white rule in the writing world. But telling absolutely has its important role to fulfill in storytelling, both on the large scale and on the small scale.

    @Vicki: “-ly” words are ones we’d do well to run a universal search for and replace with caps (-LY). That way, as we’re proofreading along, we’re forced to slow down and consider the worth of each one, rather than just racing on past.

  18. Great post. I mostly agree. Using unnecessary adverbs is an easy trap to fall into for novice writers who perhaps lack the innovation to be descriptive in more subtle ways. Humans have vivid imaginations, and it would be a tragic mistake to think that your reader is somehow LESS imaginative than you, and therefore you need to hold his hand (metaphorically) while he reads.

    That being said, I would hesistate to condemn the part of speech as a whole. I think it’s important to realize that the true fallacy lies not in using words that end in “ly.” The true fallacy is using words that distract from the meaning of the sentence and draw attention to the writer. If a word is too cavalier for its context, or too “clunky,” as Weiland says, the reader’s mind will become derailed–even if only for a fraction of a second–from the flow of understanding, and he/she will subconsciously acknowledge the existence of the writer behind the word and the diction choices that writer should or shouldn’t have made.

    The SPEAKER, not the writer, should be getting all the attention. Much to their discredit, adverbs do tend to cause this problem more often than not.

    Check out my blog at http://alekspeterson.wordpress.com/

  19. Appropriate word choices are appropriate word choices, no matter the part of speech. The only difference when it comes to the adverb is that it is perhaps the appropriate choice less often than not.

  20. I grew up reading older books, so I’m used to seeing adverbs. I think some people nowadays are too quick to condemn ALL adverbs, instead of just being against their overuse or superfluous use. If you’re using them 50 times per page or saying things like “He screamed loudly,” there’s a problem. But if you’re using them to describe something when an adverb is merited, I don’t think there’s a problem with it. The adverb is a venerable part of speech. And why should a writer be encouraged to use a bunch of extra words to describe something that could easily be conveyed with just an adverb?

  21. The best rule of thumb for adverbs (and all parts of speech, when it comes right down to it) is to remove the adverb and consider whether anything important was lost. Is the sentence more or less clear without the adverb? If the sentence is better off without it, no need to put it back in. And vice versa.

  22. After having a quick look through some of my writing, it’s another thing I seemed to have more-or-less adopted unconsciously. The adverbs that are there I like to think are necessary because of my somewhat stream of consciousness writing (flavouring almost every line as if thought by the character, without an explicit first person narrative). Still, if after a full readthrough after the completion they will end up out of place, I will heed this advice.

  23. That’s the best approach. Recognize their presence, consider them objectively, and maintain and delete as needed.

  24. I’ve been thinking about this often, lately, and I love to read all these comments about moderation, not condemnation. I DO use adverbs, though sparingly, because they are part of my characters’ voices, and because we just need them in writing. The blanket condemnation reveals people’s failure to understand they are a necessary part of speech, and they likely don’t realize all the adverbs they use that DON’T end in -ly. Sure, they can be a telling shortcut. But, they help pace a scene, they help qualify when a character is interpreting another character’s actions or motivations (ex, apparently) so as not to break POV. And when we follow these writing rules to the letter, not the spirit, we all end up sounding the same. Thanks for a great post and discussion!

  25. The spirit of the writing law is always going to trump the letter. But we need to understand why the letter is there and why it’s important if we’re to understand the spirit – and thus when to flout it.

  26. Adverbs can be found in some of the greatest works of fiction. Recently I caught one or two in Hemmingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, which was alarming given Hemingway’s bluntness. There are also a surprising few in “The Great Gatsby”. Would they have been better books without those adverbs?

    The rules are made to be broken, but only with purpose. I’ll cite Mark Sarvas paraphrasing Deborah Eisenberg and say, “you can do anything you want, provided you can do it.”

  27. Bingo. Break all the rules, but do it brilliantly. And I’ll venture to say the book has yet to be written that doesn’t include adverbs. They’re a necessary and important part of speech. They’re only problematic when they’re abused.

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