Lexiconicide: Adverbs

2010
05.24

I think I am going to start a new semi-regular topic on lexiconicide, the mass murder of various items from the English lexicon. Yes, it’s a made up word. Yes, there is probably a better word, or one that already exists that means the same thing, but I like this one!

To kick things off, let’s take a gander at the much hated, overused, abused, enabling, etc etc etc… adverb.

Lately, (ha! adverb!) adverbs have been getting kicked around like a Lego that a dad steps on, only to be sworn at and tossed in the trash. Why the bad wrap? Why is it that so many agents say that adverbs are evil? Are they really even saying this, or is it some crazy conspiracy?

Yes and no.

What they are saying, is “ly” adverbs (mostly) are a common sign of weak writing. Typically, (ha! another one!) a stronger verb can be used instead of an “ly” adverb + verb combo. So, to make things easy, they say, “No ‘ly’ adverbs.” Some say never, while others will give you some sort of ratio of what is acceptable.

I think it’s a another case of, “Right problem, wrong fix.”

Want to know my take on the matter? Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this (unless you are my friends and family, in which case, the $5 is in the mail… thanks for following πŸ˜‰ )

Here is a cleaned up version of something I posted in Nathan Bransford’s forum on this topic.

The rule, “never use adverbs,” or, “only use adverbs that don’t end in ‘ly’,” or all of the other variations out there, was originally intended to make writers throw away week modifiers in place of better verbs. All too often, writers will choose a modifier+verb instead of the proper verb. Example:

“He spoke quietly.”

vs.

“He whispered.” < there are, of course, several different possibilities.

Unfortunately, I think the rule has grown into a monster who feeds on the flesh of new writers. Trained and coddled by unsuspecting lobbyists for the anti-adverb movement, the rule has lost its intention. Instead of helping/forcing writers to use stronger verbs (hence, tighter prose), the rule has been blindly used to abolish the poor little adverb from any manuscript in town.

I suggest that the adverb should only be slaughtered from your sentence if:

1) A stronger verb can be found to replace the adverb+verb combo… the new word must be common enough that your target audience doesn’t need a dictionary

2) The adverb is redundant. IE: “He whispered quietly.”

3) The adverb is replacing emotion that should be shown instead of told. IE: “He laughed happily.” Look here to see what I mean by showing vs. telling

4) The adverb is but one in a series (bad bad bad bad !). IE: “He quickly and quietly jumped over the log.”

5) Removing the adverb doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence at all

6) Most importantly, replacing the adverb with other words to convey the same meaning doesn’t change your voice, flow or rhythm.
On the contrary, if the only way to remove the adverb is to replace it with a million dollar scrabble word, or if removing it would change the meaning and there is no clean way of showing the same thing, while retaining your voice, flow and cadence/rhythm, then leave the little fellow in there. Let him shine, and do his job. After all, adverbs are part of the language, too.

So what say you, dear reader? I’d like to know both your personal feelings on the matter, AND if you’ve heard an agent or editor comment on the matter, what they had to say about it.

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12 Responses to “Lexiconicide: Adverbs”

  1. I would have to add two more conditions in there:
    β€’ If an adverb summarizes a series of actions by telling instead of showing: He walked clumsily.
    β€’ If the use of an adverb costs me a book contract.

  2. Myrna Foster says:

    I agree with you, Chris. But you have to admit, your list will eliminate just about every adverb in a manuscript.

  3. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Myrna:
    I wouldn’t say every adverb, but it does make me take a closer look and really weigh each one. Trust me, though, I still use my fair share πŸ˜‰

  4. roh says:

    A topic that is very close to my heart right now as I begin tearing through all my writing to strip out adverbs.

    I do have one issue, though. The suggestion (which I’ve seen other places, not just here) to use the dialog to express emotion instead of an adverbial dialog tag (like that?) doesn’t work too well for characters who tend to be close-mouthed. Relying on dialog to convey all the emotion in a scene ignores the vital non-verbal communication that most people forget about.

    But otherwise? Yes, adverbs should be used sparingly . In fact, in the previous paragraph, I just replaced “extremely important” with “vital” in the last sentence. See, my brain’s hunting down those pesky -lys even as I write.

    And Lexiconicide? I like, I like!

  5. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Roh:
    True, but you can always use inner monologue for those pesky closed-mouths πŸ™‚

  6. roh says:

    Arrggh!

    I had a smiley face after the word ‘sparingly’ in the third paragraph. It disappeared into etherspace when I hit submit.

  7. roh says:

    Inner monologue can slow down a snappy dialog scene, so I tend to use it…as little as possible.

    Now see? I just had to use 4 words to replace ‘sparingly’ or ‘carefully.’

    Kinda defeats the purpose of tight writing as I see it.

  8. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Roh
    Very true, and that is the perfect reason why the adverb can’t be abolished.

    Tight writing isn’t the only factor, though. If it was, then you should always tell, and never show (as showing is ALWAYS longer). BUT, I do agree with the point strongly (see, I use them;) ). If it ruins the voice, takes more words, etc. than leave ’em in!

  9. We had NO idea that adverbs were bad before we started subbing our first (FAILED) novel to agents. Oops.

    Now we’re definitely careful about using them, but we don’t avoid them completely. Hemingway we shall never be.

  10. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Lisa and Laura
    Yeah, I am not a super big anti-adverb guy, but in my own work, I realize that most of them can be replaced by stronger verbs. I still use them, though πŸ™‚

  11. “Inner monologue can slow down a snappy dialog scene, so I tend to use it…as little as possible.”

    can be said as:

    “Inner monologue may slow snappy dialog, so I tend to avoid it.”

    “Avoid” is a much stronger verb than “use sparingly” and requires far fewer words than “use it as little as possible.”

  12. GOOD STUFF! Still a work in progress for me. Le sigh!

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