Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Writing Tip: How Adverbs Can Weaken Your Writing, and How to Find Them

I've seen a lot of 'grammar hack' tips that say you can find adverbs by just looking for words ending in -ly. The problem with that is that some words that end in -ly are not adverbs (Think early.) and there are also lots of adverbs that don't end that way.

Don't worry, there's a better way.

What Is an Adverb?

The official definition I had to memorize in home-school was this:

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb.

If you're not a grammar nut, that may be just a bunch of words to you. Don't worry, I'll walk you through it.
'Modify' is just a fancy word for 'change.' In grammar lingo, a modifier is a word that affects another word's meaning in some way.

Adverbs modify verbs.

Some examples:

drove recklessly
drove sadly
drove illegally 
drove fast

The words recklessly, slowly, illegally and fast are adverbs. Each one affects the meaning of the verb drove in a different way.

Drove is an action verb, but some sentences have being verbs instead. Being verbs are words such as is, was, and will be.  Adverbs can modify being verbs, as well. In these examples, the verbs are in bold type and the adverbs are in ALL CAPS:

She was pregnant YESTERDAY.
He will be happier TOMORROW.
Our blankets would be drier INDOORS. 

But how do we know that yesterday, tomorrow and indoors modify the verbs in these sentences and not the nouns or pronouns? Because they wouldn't make any sense that way. Let's try it with the first sentence: There's no such thing as a 'yesterday she.' Same thing goes for being 'yesterday pregnant.' The only thing left for yesterday to modify is was

Another thing I learned in my home-school grammar classes was that adverbs answer questions starting with the words when, why, where, and how. Yesterday answers the question 'When was she pregnant?' 

Adverbs modify adjectives.

It's easy to see how the adverbs affect the meaning of the adjective red in these examples:

bright red
dark red 
almost red

Adverbs modify other adverbs.


One way adverbs weaken our writing is by telling instead of showing. Telling that your character drove recklessly is boring. Showing what happened when she got behind the wheel might be very exciting. Adverbs can also take the punch out of high-energy scenes or make sentences feel cluttered and harder to understand.

But not every adverb is your enemy. In fact, did you know that the word not is an adverb? A 1631 printing of the Bible omitted that adverb just once. Sure enough, it made the sentence much more interesting.

Finding Adverbs

If you're taking a grammar test, then the only reliable way to find all the adverbs in a piece of text is to find the verbs and then see which words modify them (and which ones modify them), and then go through the same process with the adjectives.

But if you're out to strengthen your writing, try this instead:

  • Look for words that tell how something was done (recklessly, fast, sadly, jealously...). Find ways to show instead of tell. The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource for this.
  • Look for words that clutter up your sentences, taking the punch out of your action and the clarity out of your narrative.
Remember, grammar isn't about following a set of rules to the letter. It's about using words to your best advantage.

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