Understanding Adverbs and How to Use Them Correctly (Sparingly)

Monday, May 163 min read

Writers are often instructed to avoid adverbs whenever possible. Ernest Hemingway claimed a “distrust” of adverbs, and Stephen King believes “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” So, what exactly is this part of speech, and why does the adverb get such a bad rap?

What Is an Adverb?

While an adjective can only modify a noun, adverbs are more diverse. These little words can describe a verb, adjective, another adverb, or even a whole phrase or sentence. That’s because — like an adjective — an adverb adds more information about a word or phrase.

Though adverbs typically end in “-ly,” that’s not a hard rule. Some describe how something is done (“fast” or “well”), when it happens (“soon” or “tomorrow”), where it’s going down (“here” or “there”), how often it occurs (“often” or “sometimes”), or the intensity of the action (“very” or “almost”).

Using Adverbs With Verbs

Adverbs are best known for modifying verbs (it’s in the name, after all). Here, they tell us how an action is performed:

Tessa swims swiftly.

They jogged happily down the street.

Grandpa whistled loudly.

When adding an adverb to a verb, make sure the phrase doesn’t become redundant. For example, the sentence, “Rami yelled loudly,” does not need the adverb “loudly” since “yelled” implies that it was done loudly. Therefore, the sentence could be rewritten as “Rami yelled,” or the verb could be strengthened to “Rami screamed” or “Rami bellowed” and have the same meaning. This highlights the writing advice to limit adverbs. There’s usually a more powerful or descriptive verb to use rather than modifying a more basic verb with an adverb.

Some verbs also don’t need an adverb to describe them; they need an adjective instead. These are called linking verbs because they “link” the subject with the rest of the sentence. They don’t show action but a state of being. Some common linking verbs are: “be,” “feel,” “grow,” “look,” “smell,” “sound,” and “taste.”

You look beautiful. (Incorrect: “You look beautifully.”)

She grew tired. (Incorrect: “She grew tiredly.”)

I feel bad. (Incorrect: “I feel badly.”)

Note: When describing an emotion, not a physical state, the adverb can be correct — as in, “I feel badly about missing your birthday party.”

Using Adverbs With Adjectives

When an adverb modifies an adjective, it can also be called an “intensifier” because it adds to the strength of the word.

The child was exceptionally strong.

He had a really purple bruise.

They climbed the very large hill.

Like with verbs, consider if an adverb is needed (especially when using “very” or “really”), or if there’s a more descriptive word that can stand alone.For example, instead of calling the hill in the above sentence “very large,” it could be described as “enormous” or “huge.”

Using Adverbs With Other Adverbs

Adverbs can even modify other adverbs:

He jogged very rapidly.

She never fully accepted the truth.

The patient sat up almost energetically.

It’s possible to string together three or more adverbs in a row — “I truly, madly, deeply love you!”— but that isn’t recommended in more formal writing.

Using Adverbs With Complete Sentences

Finally, adverbs can describe a whole clause when it appears at the beginning of the sentence. These are called “sentence adverbs”:

Clearly, she didn’t study for the test.

Actually, that’s not what happened.

Fortunately, we saved our money this year.

There’s some debate about whether the word “hopefully” can properly begin a sentence as an adverb. The phrase “Hopefully, he will remember our anniversary,” can certainly come up in casual conversation. But can someone “remember hopefully”? Not really, and it’s recommended not to start sentences in formal writing this way. (The correct usage would be “I hope he will remember our anniversary.”)

Some widely accepted sentence adverbs that are allowed include, “actually,” “basically,” “frankly,” “generally,” fortunately,” “interestingly,” “regretfully,” “strictly,” and “thankfully.”

Featured image credit: Robert Knofe/ iStock

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