A Word, Please: A really strong argument against adverbs

If, somewhere out there in Grammarland, adverbs have their own post office, I'm sure my picture is hanging in it, probably above the caption "Public Enemy No. 1" or "Wanted Dead or Alive."

I don't deny the allegations. They're true: I'm an adverbicidal maniac. I see a word like "uniquely" or "truly" or "totally" and I'm transformed from mild-mannered copy editor into a vicious and remorseless slasher.

Many adverbs deserve to die. No one knows this better than an editor tasked with fixing the prose of unpolished writers. Think about how many times you've seen marketing copy like "Our company is uniquely positioned to perfectly provide a truly expert pest-control experience" and you'll start to see the logic behind my brutal impulses.

In my defense, I should note that there are many adverbs I never attack. This leads us to a crucial point about adverbs — something many people don't know: Adverbs aren't just those "ly" words that modify verbs and adjectives. They're a much larger group than that.

Words that answer the questions "when?" and "where?" — words like "outside" and "soon" and even "tomorrow" — are adverbs. So are words like "however" and "therefore" that connect one sentence's idea to the next.

I consider it one of the great mysteries of our educational system that almost everyone knows that "quickly" is an adverb but almost no one knows "there" and "now" are often adverbs. (If you want a quick primer on this, I recommend the "Adverbs" tab at http://www.grammaruntied.com.)

I have no quarrel with adverbs like "now" or "therefore" or "indoors." No, the adverbs that make me want to spill red ink are the ones we know best — the more famous ones that usually end in "ly" and that are often called manner adverbs because they describe the manner in which an action takes place. But only when they're used unwisely.

Consider this sentence, which is typical of the prose found in a lot of unpublished novels: Mary quickly grabbed the gun, angrily pointed it in Lou's face and remorselessly pulled the trigger.

Clearly, those adverbs are all there to add emphasis. But do they? Let's look at the sentence without them: Mary grabbed the gun, pointed it in Lou's face and pulled the trigger.

Writers trying to make their information as exciting as possible will often resort to adverbs as a way to inject urgency or emotion. Sadly, the adverbs often have the opposite effect. The prose comes off as weak and pleading to be taken seriously, like a child who "really, really, really, really, really" wants some ice cream.

What these writers fail to see is that, often, actions have more impact when they stand alone. Solid facts like "she pulled the trigger" need no adornment. That's why, often, "ly" adverbs are the culprits in silly redundancies like "completely new" and "totally different."

Of course, manner adverbs exist for a reason. Often they contain information worth keeping: "He slowly reached into his pocket" tells us more than just "He reached into his pocket."

The speed at which someone reaches for something can mean danger or caution or even menace. Notice how that's different from "quickly grabbed," in which "grabbed" sounds quick enough all by itself.

Whenever I come across a manner adverb in an article I'm editing or in my own writing, I try taking it out. If the sentence loses information or emphasis, I put it back in. Otherwise, I gleefully leave the adverb to die in a pool of red ink.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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