Why You Should Avoid Adverbs

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Why you should avoid adverbs

Stephen King once wrote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

The truth is, you usually don’t need them to convey your message.

What are adverbs and why are they so bad?

An adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb (e.g., ran quickly, slept soundly, jumped excitedly, etc.).

They aren’t necessarily bad. But adverbs, like exclamation points, are a crutch some people use in an attempt to make their writing more interesting. However, just like exclamation points, you should use them sparingly.

As Grammar Girl notes, they can be redundant or just simply misplaced. These redundancies or misplacements can confuse, distract, or annoy your reader.

Redundancies

Consider the following sentence:

  • “The boy ran excitedly to the mailbox.”

By telling readers that the boy ran to the mailbox, they can surmise that he was excited to get to the mailbox. Including the adverb quickly is therefore redundant.

To avoid using an adverb in this case, you can either remove the adverb (“The boy ran to the mailbox.”) or replace the verb with a more descriptive one (e.g., “The boy sprinted to the mailbox.”).

But be careful with the latter suggestion. Let’s return to King in On Writing:

“Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

‘Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jeckyll grated.’
‘Never stop kissing me!’ Shayna gasped.
‘You damned tease!’ Bill jerked out.

“Don’t do these things. Please oh please.”

Misplaced Adverbs

If you misplace an adverb, you might lose the message you wanted to send. For example:

  • “The driver ran through the light and hit me without stopping.”

The meaning of this sentence is unclear. Did the driver run through the light without stopping, or did he hit you and not stop? Or both?

To clear it up, you can write:

  • “The driver ran through the light without stopping and hit me.”
  • “The driver did not stop at the light and hit me while I crossed the street.”
  • “The driver ran the light, hit me, and drove away.”

These examples clarify the meaning of the sentence by either placing the adverb in a more appropriate position within the sentence, or eliminating it entirely.

How else can I avoid using adverbs?

If you read your sentence and you realize that your message is the same without the adverb, get rid of it. It’s likely not necessary. That was the case with the first example of the boy running to the mailbox.

You can also forgo the use of adverbs and decide to include information your readers need. For example:

Here’s another example:

  • “Make sure you file your accident claim quickly.”

This sentence takes on a somewhat different meaning if you remove the adverb.

  • “Make sure you file your accident claim.”

This version fails to convey the urgency with which readers should file their claims. That could be a concern if there is a time limit to file.

This is an example where an adverb could be important to the meaning of the sentence. But you could alternatively forego the adverb and add supporting information to the sentence that itself conveys urgency.

  • “If you do not file your claim within the two-year statute of limitations, the state may bar you from recovering the compensation you need.”

This not only conveys the urgency with which readers should file their claim, it provides more helpful information than the original version, i.e., that there is a two-year statute of limitations.

I’m so confused!

This is not to say you can never use an adverb; but just as we said with exclamation points, try to limit your use. Let your writing be your adverb — that is to say, trust that your writing is conveying the message you intend, without a crutch like an adverb or exclamation point.

Check out last week’s post about using good sources and come back next week to learn about the difference between i.e. and e.g.

As always, if you need help with content writing, give us a call: 888-521-3880.