Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

Aspiring science-fiction authors receive one piece of advice above all others: Forsake the adverb, the killer of prose. It's terribly, awfully, horrendously important. But why?

Really, adverbs aren't bad in themselves. They're a part of speech, fundamentally no different than any other. Basically, an adverb modifies a verb or adjective to tell you how someone did something. The main problem is, unfortunately, people tend to overuse adverbs. And they're the part of speech most likely to clutter your sentence pointlessly.

So really, the advice should be: "Use adverbs sparingly. And don't use any unnecessary words at all."

Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

Adverb phobia is especially troublesome if you're writing science fiction, because you may find yourself battling some lingering stereotypes that all SF books are pulpy and throwaway. And while everybody loves a good pulpy read every now and then (and lots of authors who are literary giants were once considered pulpy) this may not be the impression you're hoping to send in this day and age, when the economics of publishing have changed so drastically.

And it's really true that if you pick up a pulpy science fiction paperback published prior to 20 years ago, it'll be positively stacked with adverbs. Consider these representative quotes from the novels Starjacked! by William Greenleaf, Beanstalk by John Rackham, The Devolutionist And The Emancipatrix by Homer Eon Flint:

He quickly locked the door that led to the outside corridor.

Billie was not the only one who was interested; Van Emmon was equally curious, and Smith privately believed that the geologist was slightly jealous of the distant athlete.

"That's a long way up," he said doubtfully.

She looked at him inquiringly.

His face sobered swiftly.

Haldar snarled at him savagely.

Blannon nodded thoughtfully.

"We did it," he said quietly but in triumph.

He strode off rapidly, leaving Jack to plod in his wake.

Cassady smiled thinly. "It isn't that simple."

The mechanism clearly fascinated Gillie.

The boy was bitterly disappointed and blamed himself for the commset's failure.

Troy spun around, grabbing for the gun, but it was already firmly in Erek's hand with the safety off.

"Safety harness," he answered smoothly.

"They did it," Diana said incredulously.

"All right!" Gillie said excitedly. "Here we go."

"I want answers!" Troy screamed shrilly.

Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

I don't mean to pick on these books in particular. I'm working on this post in Borderlands Books' spiffy new cafe, on my word processor, and they just happened to jump out at me. Nevertheless, these are some great examples of adverbs that add nothing to the writing — or actively detract from it.

In many cases, these adverbs don't tell you anything you didn't already know. ("He screamed shrilly" is a prime example. Ditto with "bitterly disappointed.") In other cases, they make things less clear. (I've seen the phrase "smiled thinly" in a number of old science fiction novels before, and I never quite know what it means. Is the man in question smiling while pursing his lips? Is he smiling with his mouth but not his eyes? Is it only a halfway smile? It's not a clear image, at least not to me.)

This kind of prose reads as though it was written very quickly, and as though you should read it equally quickly — you're reading for plot and a smattering of ideas, not for characters, themes or finely crafted prose. I don't know about you, but I read different books at different speeds, and there are lots of cues that let me know I should start speed-reading or outright skimming. Adverbs are definitely among those cues.

And I want to single out one of those above sentences: "Troy spun around, grabbing for the gun, but it was already firmly in Erek's hand with the safety off." There are more problematic adverbs in this sentence than you notice at first.

First of all, "around" is pure clutter* — is there any other way to spin? There's also the way Troy's attempt to grab the gun is part of the act of spinning, but that's not an adverb problem, so we'll skip over it.

Then there are two adverbs in a row: "already firmly." And the phrase "already firmly" is a symptom of a bigger problem with the sentence. Break the compound sentence into two parts — the subject of the second half is "it" and the verb is "was." The gun just appears in Erek's hand. And poor Erek, who has heroically seized the gun and turned the safety off in time to thwart Troy, doesn't even get to be the subject of his own half-sentence. The gun isn't even the subject. Instead, the subject is "it," which refers to the gun. Also, "firmly" is meant to tell us that Erek grips the gun or aims the gun, but it's not as interesting as either of those verbs would have been.

It's kind of sad how boring all of this spinning and grabbing and gunplay turns out to be.

Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

So let's look, cursorily, at a few ways in which adverbs can weaken your prose, before moving on to some ways you can use them effectively.

1) They can be redundant. She crept stealthily. He yelled angrily. They ran quickly. As David Byrne says, "Say something once. Why say it again?"

2) They can weaken your verbs, or prop up a weak verb. Look at the most famous adverb in science-fiction history: Captain Kirk's "To boldly go where no man has gone before." What do you notice? Okay, yes, it's a split infinitive. But look past that. The verb is "go," which doesn't really tell us much in itself.

What would happen if you took the adverb out of that sentence? You get: "To go where no man has gone before." Which sounds bland, and a little apologetic. ("Hey, we're, uh, going, ummm, somewhere that we haven't gone before." "Oh. Are we there yet?" "No.")

From that, you might conclude that the adverb is necessary. But actually, it's more that the verb is weak. "Go" just doesn't give us much, and it definitely doesn't have the swashbuckling feeling Captain Kirk's ringing voiceover demands. So the best bet is to replace it with a stronger verb, like "venture," or "explore." Or how about: "To walk where no man has walked before"? It's evocative and calls to mind men walking on the Moon. (Although then you're excluding both women and disabled people.)

"To boldly go" tells us that Star Trek is going to be a bit pulpy, somewhat cheesy, and maybe slightly ham-handed.

3) You've already got an adjective, and and adverb is overkill. Think of the verb as the engine of your sentence, and the noun as the driver. Adjectives and adverbs are like extra bits of weight, slowing your momentum down. Most of the time, if your nouns and verbs are strong enough, you need few adjectives and even fewer adverbs. An adverb plus an adjective often indicates a sickly verb — I'm willing to bet if you're sticking in an adverb on top of an adjective, your verb is "to be," possibly including a passive construction.

Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

4) Speech tags. Most of the time, you can just use "he said" or "she said" without any fancy verb or modifier. These days, if you overuse substitutes for the verb "to say," like "he expostulated" or "she sputtered," then it makes your prose look a bit purple-ish. So it's tempting to spice up "he said" with an adverb. Like "he said, laconically" Or "she said angrily." But honestly, most of the time your dialog will speak for itself. If someone says "We're all going to die!" we don't need to know that he said it hysterically, or pessimistically, or — worst of all — fatalistically. If it's not clear how someone said something, then you can always describe her tone of voice, her body language, or what she did next. ("We're all going to die!" Fred yanked out tufts of his own hair.)

5) The purple adverb. There are adverbs that don't just clutter your prose, or indicate a weak verb, they make your prose look more purple. "He smiled thinly" is a good example of that. Another one I see in a lot of old novels is "He grinned wolfishly." An entire generation of novelists thought that "wolfishly" was a word — and then it vanished, like an extinct species. We already spent an entire blog post singling out the word "grimly," which novelists sometimes use to try and convey a sense of drama or high stakes, but which just drains any actual grimness out of your writing. (It's like explaining a joke — if you need to tell us something happened grimly or someone spoke grimly, then it's not really that grim.)

But adverbs aren't necessarily all bad, and they can spruce up your writing if you use them judiciously. Here's a test you should apply before using an adverb.

1) Does it change the word it modifies? Does it make the verb or adjective mean something drastically different?

2) Does it convey some vital piece of information in a way that's better or more evocative than real description or a stronger verb by itself?

If the answer to either or both of these things is "Yes," then go ahead and use an adverb. There's nothing wrong with an adverb, if it conveys new information or provides a distinct slant on something.

For example, "horribly fatal" doesn't tell us anything new. "Hilariously fatal" does. So does "moderately fatal." So does "arguably fatal." I will never quibble with anyone who wants to use phrases like "statistically significant number of maimings." An adverb can signal a certain tongue-in-cheekness by undermining or tweaking the adjective it goes with, like: "the savagely handsome first officer." Or "the obnoxiously sexy co-pilot."

I also have a weakness, in first-person writing, for using adverbs to convey a certain amount of skepticism or snarkiness. Like "They really believed I was the High Cyborg of Ravenna, until they noticed my implants were made of tinsel." Or "They actually tried to airlock me. WTF?" I admit those adverbs aren't strictly necessary, but they make the "voice" of the writing feel a bit more natural, at least to my eyes. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

* - Is "around" a preposition or an adverb in this context? I read several grammar guides, which suggested that if "around" doesn't have a direct object, and it's modifying a verb, then it's an adverb. But grammar bastards can feel free to flay me in comments over this one.