A Word, Please: There’s nothing truly good about superfluity

In a recent New York Times piece, novelist Zoe Heller wrote about helping her daughter with an English essay. “Try excising the words ‘extremely,’ ‘totally’ and ‘incredibly,’” Heller suggested. Her daughter did and was “surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them.”

Adverbs can be bad news. They can come off as unprofessional and even undermine a writer’s point. Heller’s examples, “extremely,” “totally” and “incredibly,” are among the worst. My personal least-favorite is “truly,” which never fails to cast doubt about the veracity of whatever it’s modifying.

Adjectives can be just as bad. “I was chased by an ugly, mean, terrifying, blood-thirsty killer.” There’s a reason you’ll never see a sentence like that in a best-selling thriller.

Lots of renowned writing experts caution against adjectives and adverbs.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” warned Stephen King.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it” is the title of a book by language expert Ben Yagoda.

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” instructed Strunk and White in “The Elements of Style.”

But all this raises the question: If adjectives and adverbs are so awful, why do they exist in the first place? The answer, of course, is that they have their place. Sometimes, adjectives and adverbs are indispensable.

Take, for example, this ironic warning from Strunk and White: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Could the authors have made their point without the adjectives “weak,” “inaccurate” and “tight”? Of course not.

The trick is knowing when adjectives and adverbs should stay and when they should go. And in my years of editing professional writers, I’ve noticed one quality that sets good adjectives and adverbs apart from the bad. See if you can guess it. Compare the following sentence pairs.

He drives and unbelievably awesome and incredibly cool car.

He drives a reasonably priced family car.

She wore an astoundingly ugly and unflattering shirt.

She wore an oversized red-and-green floral print shirt.

Hopefully you agree that the first examples are terrible and the second ones are improvements. But can you see why?

In the first sentences, the adjectives and adverbs are intensifiers, serving no purpose other than to tell the reader what to think. “Please believe me,” the modifiers say, “because you won’t be getting any facts with which to decide for yourself.”

The second sentences do the opposite. They don’t say things are ugly or impressive or awesome or cool. They give you solid information about things like price and colors and patterns. Armed with that kind of information, the reader has a more vivid picture of the thing being described and can decide for himself whether something is ugly or cool or awesome. That, to me, is what separates good modifiers from bad ones. Good adjectives and adverbs add information.

Predicate adjectives, for example, almost always carry their own weight. “She is tall.” “He seems nice.” “I became angry.” These sentences simply couldn’t survive without them.

Manner adverbs, which modify actions, can be good or bad depending on whether they add new information. “She screamed angrily at me” suffers from what Heller calls a law of diminishing returns because “She screamed at me” conveys the same idea without straining to wow the reader.

Conversely, “He walked away slowly” tells us something more than “He walked away.” So this adverb works.

Let vivid nouns and action-packed verbs do most of the heavy lifting in your writing. If you see an adverb or adjective on the page, try taking it out. If the sentence suffers without it, you know it’s a keeper.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at