Adverbs: Misunderstood, Abused, & Powerful Tools


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Adverbs: Misunderstood, Abused, & Powerful Tools

Some things to Consider about Adverbs

An adverb is a modifier, which is any phrase or word that adds more information to a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a determiner, or a sentence: adverbs modify the meaning of other words or phrases. Adverbs modify in different ways, such as answering questions: how, when, where, why, how often, how much, or in what way something happens. Adverbs usually end with -ly, but not always.


Adverbs are loathed for easy misuse but also for lack of creativity that results from lazily using them. However, avoiding adverbs confines writing into a derivative construction.

In the same way, you can overuse words, you can underuse words, and pattern writing in a lack of options. 

If you omit adverbs, you lose the ability to write natural-sounding dialogue –– whether proper or not. For example,

The kids screamed from the windows atop the flame-engulfed building as Bob stepped into a run, heading for the conflagration. Jane yelled, "The fire is too hot! How will you save the children?"

"Quickly!" Bob called over his shoulder.  

Adverbs provide many uses beyond modifying action, such as sarcasm,

John pointed to the vehicle. "Well, you can't be a driver, Violet, because you is a woman, and women have no place behind the wheel of a stock car."

Violet rolled her eyes. "Really?"

The despise of adverbs forms in their academic requirements for essays to avoid redundancy. Still, fiction writing should abide by many of the same guidelines but necessitates more flexibility, most notably dialogue mimicking authentic speech. In life, informal language uses and misuses adverbs all the time. Think of how often you hear "literally, honestly, specifically, ironically," etc. Grammar Nazis and writing critics tend to attack statements like, 

Adverbs destroy all writing –– literally!

The Nazis would consider this usage wrong because it is an emphatic, redundant expression that serves no purpose and could be said just as emphatically this way:

Adverbs destroy all writing! 

Whether slang or improper, "literally", by its literal use over time, became a word of emphasis like many other adverbs, and therefore, "literally" is literally a word of emphasis as well as exactness. (I just had to put that in there! 😊)

Adverbs, like adjectives and any other class of words, serve specific functions and should never be admonished except when serving to add no meaning, such as authenticity or for modifying verbs and many other words or phrases for clarification. The following guidelines should provide some clarification, but you should always use your best judgment since the art of writing forms in the author's discretion to use or not use whatever she deems necessary to convey the story.

Adverbs of Manner

These adverbs describe the performance of an action or how something happens. For example, "He ran quickly," She sang beautifully," and "They laughed loudly." Most adverbs of manner end in -ly, but some do not, such as "well, fast, hard, etc." To avoid using redundant or vague adverbs of manner, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not use an adverb of manner if the verb already conveys the same meaning. For example, instead of saying, "He whispered quietly," just say, "He whispered."
  • Do not use an adverb of manner that is too general or weak. For example, instead of saying, "She danced nicely," say, "She danced gracefully."
  • Do not use an adverb of manner that is overused or clichéd. For example, instead of saying, "He worked very hard," say, "He worked diligently."

Adverbs of Time

Adverbs specify when an action or event occurs or how often. For example, "I saw her yesterday," "We go there every week," and "She will come soon." Some adverbs of time refer to specific points or periods, such as today, tomorrow, now, then, etc., while others refer to frequency or duration, such as always, never, sometimes, often, etc. To avoid using adverbs of time that are unnecessary or contradictory, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not use an adverb of time if the verb tense already shows the time. For example, instead of saying, "I am leaving now," just say, "I am leaving."
  • Do not use an adverb of time that is irrelevant or redundant. For example, instead of saying, "I will see you tomorrow morning," just say, "I will see you tomorrow."
  • Do not use an adverb of time that is inconsistent or illogical. For example, instead of saying, "I have finished it already yesterday," say, "I finished it yesterday."

Adverbs of Place

These adverbs indicate where an action or event occurs or something's location. For example, "He lives here," "She went there," and "They are everywhere." Some adverbs of place refer to specific locations, such as home, school, park, etc., while others refer to direction or movement, such as up, down, in, out, etc. To avoid using adverbs of place that are irrelevant or confusing, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not use an adverb if the noun already shows the place. For example, instead of saying, "He went to the park there," just say "He went to the park."
  • Do not use an adverb of place that is unnecessary or repetitive. For example, instead of saying, "He lives nearby here," just say, "He lives nearby."
  • Do not use an ambiguous or unclear adverb of place. For example, instead of saying, "She moved around here," say, "She moved around the room."

Adverbs of Degree

These adverbs indicate the intensity or extent of an action, quality, or condition. For example, "He loves her very much," "She is hardly happy," and "They are extremely smart." Some adverbs of degree modify verbs, such as very much, hardly, barely, etc., while others modify adjectives or other adverbs, such as "extremely, too, enough, etc." To avoid using adverbs of degree that are excessive or inaccurate, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not use an adverb of degree if the adjective or adverb already shows the degree. For example, instead of saying, "He is very tall," just say, "He is tall."
  • Do not use an adverb of degree that is too strong or exaggerated. For example, instead of saying, "She is absolutely perfect," say "She is very good or excellent."
  • Do not use an adverb of degree that is incorrect or misleading. For example, instead of saying, "They are totally different," say, "They are very different" or "completely different."

Adverbs of Certainty

Adverbs also reflect measures of confidence or doubt about an action, statement, or possibility. For example, "He will definitely come," "She may be right," and "They might win." Some adverbs of certainty express a high degree of certainty, such as definitely, certainly, surely, etc., while others show a low degree, such as maybe, perhaps, possibly, etc. To avoid using inappropriate or misleading adverbs of certainty, you should consider the following tips:

  • Do not use an adverb of certainty if the modal verb already shows the certainty. For example, instead of saying, "He will surely come," just say, "He will come."
  • Do not use an adverb of certainty that is irrelevant or redundant. For example, instead of saying, "She is obviously right," say, "She is right."
  • Do not use an adverb of certainty that is inconsistent or contradictory. For example, instead of saying, "They are clearly doubtful," say, "They are doubtful."

Don't Confine Your Writing

English is a dynamic living language and should be treated as such because writing as if following a set of directions risks producing the equivalent of paint-by-numbers. An appeal arises in technology (internet information access) to find simple-to-follow directions for tasks or ready-made answers, like "Don't use adverbs." However, these solutions damage writing rather than improve it because they are often taken out of context or universalized to the point of absurdity. It is not uncommon to find entire social media groups, dedicated to genre fiction writing, spouting insane advice, "like don't use adverbs."

Writing is an art and you should never confine your art to any opinion and strive for what works –– whether it's using and adverb –– the wrong or right way. 

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Copyright Vincent Triola & Terry Trueman