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NO ADVERBS: The Reason Behind the Rule

If you’ve read any guide about improving your writing, you’ve heard the “No Adverbs” rule. Cross them out, delete them, take a tiny lighter and burn a hole through every –ly word that dares rear its ugly head until your manuscript looks like Swiss cheese, but don’t you ever, under any circumstances, ever use an adverb!

… Really?

Come on, folks. Adverbs are perfectly functional members of language society. It’s not their fault they’re so easily misused.

Adverbs are descriptors for verbs and adjectives, just like adjectives are descriptors for nouns. They tend to end in –ly, though there are adverbs that don’t (fast, regardless, seldom) and other non-adverb words that do (lovely, imply, gravelly).

(To quote a certain pirate movie: “Hang the code, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”)

The problem arises when you use an adverb to support a word that’s not pulling its weight. ‘Said’ is a grievous repeat offender.

  • “You’re making a scene,” she said quietly.
  • “I’ll call the cops,” said the man angrily.
  • “Can I have some candy?” the girl said pleadingly.

Vanilla Verbs (or Vanilla Vocabulary), as I like to call them, are so bland yet so familiar that writers will use them as the first word that comes to mind. Examples: say, eat, run, walk, move, etc.

They’re words that have entire lists of synonyms in the thesaurus because they cover whole ranges of action that they cannot accurately convey without help (such as adverbs).

To return to our examples:

  • Said quietly – whispered, murmured.
  • Said angrily – growled, shouted.
  • Said pleadingly – pleaded.
    (That’s it. Go home. You’re shoring up a weak verb with an adverb made from the gerund form of a strong verb – stop the madness!)

Let me break for a moment for a quick disclaimer: ‘said’ is a perfectly acceptable dialogue tag by itself. It’s also perfectly acceptable to leave the dialogue tag off completely if your readers can infer which character is speaking from the dialogue alone. I do not advise using specialized verbs to tag every single line of dialogue. That way lies madness and pissed-off readers. However, if you are using ‘said’ and you feel the need for more description, then yes, I would suggest looking for a stronger verb rather than using ‘said’ paired with an adverb.

With that out of the way, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So yes, adverbs are abused in ways that are easy to correct through proper word choice or careful rephrasing. Does that mean that you never use them, never-ever, cross your heart and hope to die?

No.

Use adverbs when you cannot find a verb with the exact shade of meaning that you need. Use them to add description to verbs and adjectives that are already working to their full potential yet still need a little boost.

The train rattled along the track.

The train rattled briskly along the track.

Personification! The train has places to go and things to do. It’s moving quickly but not hastily, in a businesslike fashion.

The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

The flower bloomed feebly beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

‘Bloom’ is a very specialized verb with few synonyms (blossom, burgeon, flower, unfold). So if you want to add more description to the action, you really do need some extra help. You can add another phrase – “The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts, though the growth was feeble.” – but if word count is a factor, that one adverb can look pretty attractive beside that five word phrase.

Or you can use adverbs to flip a verb on its head with unexpected meaning.

The baby wailed despite his mother’s cajoling.

The baby wailed defiantly despite his mother’s cajoling.

Here’s a new shade of meaning with a hint of anger and rebellion. Usually to describe a ‘loud, angry, rebellious noise’ you would use a word like ‘roar’ or ‘bellow’, but those don’t quite fit a baby’s cry, do they? So it becomes a bit of a language equation.

Loud baby noise + angry, rebellious = wailed defiantly.

So yes, adverbs can be misused, and they often are. If you’re mindful, however, they are a valuable tool for any writer.

Can you think of verb/adverb or adjective/adverb pairs that work together in unexpected ways?

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3 thoughts on “NO ADVERBS: The Reason Behind the Rule”

    1. Thank you! People can be strangely adamant about the so-called ‘rules’, but I prefer Picasso’s take on it: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” :3

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