Adverb: friend or foe?

Last week I blogged about verbs as examples of synonyms: using different verbs to lift our fiction writing and make the action jump off the page. I ended the blog by suggesting that adverbs have a bad reputation – that we should use them sparingly, if at all. If the verbs are specific enough – why do we need adverbs? Let’s examine this thought.

Firstly, what are adverbs, and why are they so-called? Adverbs describe, and expand on, the verbs in our sentences. Adverbs, and adverbial phrases, also elaborate on the actions of characters by creating extra detail – and enabling imagery. So how can we get adverbs and verbs to collaborate in fiction? Having attended the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick every year for thirty one consecutive years (yes – a bit sad, perhaps, but we Swanwickers do get addicted), the message has always been to use adverbs sparingly, in favour of more effective verbs. For example, it is better to write ‘he sprinted…..’ than he ‘ran fast…..’ or ‘she ambled…..’ instead of ‘she walked slowly.’ So in general, this advice seems to hold up. We need to use the most exciting and precise verbs where we can.

But we can’t eliminate adverbs entirely. After all, pupils learn all about verbs and adverbs in school for a reason. So adverbs surely have some merit in writing. Well. yes…and …no. Consider these two simple adverbs: quickly, slowly: that are much over-used. The problem is that we can attach these rather bland adverbs to many different verbs: drank, walked, read, ate, showered, wrote, worked, jogged…… Such adverbs add hardly any interest or value to writing.

More specific examples: contentedly, excruciatingly, carefully, lazily, heavily, admiringly. These adverbs are more specific in relation to the verbs that precede them. They have greater inherent meaning and therefore add to the effectiveness of the verb phrase.

Adverbial phrases often describe the time or place when the action occurs. Tim read…… the evening (when). Helen jogged through the woods daily (when and where). Jasmine visited her Mum every Friday, after work. These examples expand on the action in a way that verbs alone can’t. So perhaps the message should be to avoid adverbs in favour of the greater potential for adverbial phrases: unless the adverb has a particularly specific meaning that a verb can’t replicate. What we must never do is allow adverbs to compensate for dull verbs. The verbs matter.

The difference between adverbs and adverbial phrases is that the latter expand on, rather than compensate for, the verbs. Adverbial phrases can also complement more exciting verbs, in a way that plain adverbs cannot : while we can write ‘he ran quickly’ we would not write ‘he sprinted quickly’. Specific verbs make adverbs redundant.

I never realised I could elaborate so much about verbs and adverbs – in the interests of improving my writing. Fascinating aren’t they? Whenever someone says that a book is badly (or well) written, I have often wondered what is bad (or good) about the quality of the writing. So have you decided? Is the humble adverb ‘friend or foe’ to writers of fiction?Perhaps the answer hides between shades of grey.

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