Are You Using Too Many Adverbs?

2 min read

Adverbs are an essential part of speech, but sometimes we may be guilty of overusing them. It can be tricky to curtail one of these building blocks of language, but writers are often told not to use too many adverbs in their writing. Used excessively, these little modifiers can clutter up your writing and make sentences sound redundant. Let’s review some ways to remove unnecessary adverbs from your prose and offer some tips for using adverbs to strengthen your sentences.

What Is an Adverb?

If the verb is where the action is, an adverb is what helps describe the action. While it can be read as “adjective for a verb,” it can modify verbs, adjectives, or even other adverbs.

I ran quickly to catch the door before it closed. (“Quickly” describes the verb “ran”)

The suitcase was extremely large. (“Extremely” describes the adjective “large”)

Wanda decorated the cake rather sloppily. (“Sloppily” describes the verb “decorated” and “rather” describes the adverb “sloppily”)

Words ending in “-ly” are usually adverbs, but not all adverbs follow the pattern. Descriptors that tell how (“fast,” “well”), when (“soon,” “tomorrow,” “then”), where (“here,” “there,” “behind”), how much (“very,” “just,” “almost”), and how often (“often,” “sometimes”) also fall into the adverb category.

Getting Rid of Overused Adverbs

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Tough talk on adverbs from a writing master, but instead of enriching prose, these descriptors can lead to dull, lifeless writing. Take this example:

Kamil walked out of the room angrily.

Writers are told to show, not tell. By rewriting the sentence to include some of Kamil’s actions, we can remove the adverb telling us how he feels and give the character’s feelings more context.

Kamil slammed his books on the table and stormed out of the room.

Now you’re showing how your character feels, not telling the reader using adverbs.

Some adverbs are redundant:

Magdalena yelled loudly at her mother.

Philip quietly whispered his promise.

Guido grinned happily.

All of these adverbs essentially mean the same thing as the verb they are modifying. They aren’t adding anything extra to the sentences, so they can easily be removed.

Finally, some adverbs don’t add much at all. Unless they’re used in dialogue, they can usually be removed altogether or swapped out for a stronger, more descriptive verb or adjective.

Sidney was really mad.

Angelica is so loving.

Becca was very excited to go home.

“Sidney was really mad” would be a stronger sentence as “Sidney was furious,” or “Sidney was livid.” When cutting an adverb, consider a stronger synonym to replace the word being modified.

When Should You Use Adverbs?

When exactly should you use adverbs? It’s best to pepper them through sentences sparingly, but they do come in handy. For example, the adverb might lend a verb or adjective a different meaning.

Principal Wright’s speech was brutally long.

The baby was surprisingly strong.

Padma smiled sadly.

All of these adverbs give a little bit of interest to the verb or adjective, or convey some nuance about the situation. They’re worth keeping in because they help convey new information and evoke a complex meaning.

Featured image credit: MundusImages/ iStock

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