When Adverbs Add Spice

Of all of the supposed villains pointed out in a writing class, adverbs rank at the top of the list. A verb is the strongest part of speech, runs the argument. You should be finding a strong active verb rather than relying on a modifier to do that job. That’s all great in principle, and as an editor I frequently cull adverbs from manuscripts. What might be the better question, though, is: when are adverbs useful for a writer?

Before outraged teachers and acolytes pick up their stones, I should point out that any distinctive word calls attention to itself. Given the context, you may want to use a verb that fits in better with your idiomatic prose. “He said” is meant to be merely an adjunct to what follows. “He declaimed” makes me start thinking of Cicero and auditoriums. A number of verbs that we use all the time—have, want, get, see—are bland and in most cases vague. Yet they are also very useful, because the purpose of the writing may not be to make the reader consider each verb as a new delectation to savor. It may be to sound idiomatic.

The analogue for this type of writing is speech. When a person is talking to her friend, she deliberately keeps her verbs bland so that her friend does not consider her a phony. You don’t say, “I coveted that leather handbag.” You say, “I really wanted that leather handbag.” That’s because the very act of speaking is an attempt to fit in with another.

You can write your entire novel at a high level of diction, but the tide is running against you, and has been ever since the decline of late 19th-century prose. If you are a master wordsmith who is willing to spend years refining every sentence to maintain your high standards, then go ahead and spurn all adverbs. If you, on the other hand, are like most poor slobs, trying to communicate with your reader, you may find that a sentence shorn of all adverbs may be a bland sentence.

Exercise: Variety is the spice of life. Do you have a string of sentences that all run subject-verb, subject-verb? One of the easiest ways to break up the rhythm is to add an adverb to start a sentence. “Luckily, he remembered a useful counting technique.” “Finally, the balky key turned in the lock.” In this case, the adverb is performing a function that a verb can’t match. It is being used as commentary on the entire sentence that follows. You can extend that logic to adverbs placed next to the verbs they modify. They may add a degree of specificity that you don’t want the verb to provide.

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”
—Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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