Stinken’ Adverbs and Why We Hates ‘Em


This morning I’m sorting through all the random flotsam in my brain, like,  how irritating it is when someone asks, “How do I get published?” I’m wondering if I’ll survive my speaking engagement later this week. And, I’m mulling over the conversations had yesterday at a writer’s meeting about why we shouldn’t use adverbs.

Let’s talk about these dog-gone adverbs, shall we?


When I started writing, several more established writers told me, “Don’t use “ly,” words.”

Here is where I’ll confess my weakness… my kryptonite, if you will. Grammar. Spelling. Punctuation. Blechy. We hates ’em, as Gollum might say. Tedious rules. Creative types like to dance around the inner-circle of rules and stick out our tongues, our thumbs in our ears as we wiggle our fingers… “Na, na, na, boo, boo!!!” We throw rotten tomatoes at the rules.

The inner-editorial-circle laughs at us because they know, in the end, we’ll be forced to succumb.

Oh, I can write a story. I can come up with a plot and characters. I can twist a mean phrase. But how should I punctuate it, is a question I feel very, “let’s just wait and see,” about. I’m willing to let my critique group point out issues. Maybe some beta readers will lend a hand. In the end, I’ll pay an editor to sweep up the messes in my manuscript. This whole rule-thing gets in the way of my creative process. I poo-poo the rules while I’m writing, even though I know I’ll have to use them in the end.

So, back when “they” told me, “Don’t use “ly” words,” I blindly followed the advice because, although I don’t like rules, I do want to write well, and I listen to those who are more knowledgeable.  Yet, the question nagged at me… WHY?

Turns out, “ly,” words are adverbs. In a writer’s world, they are a red flag. An alarm sounding. “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP — CLEAN UP ON PARAGRAPH FOUR, PAGE TWO.” You see, those folks who simply (gasp, I just used an adverb) told me not to use adverbs, didn’t tell me why. They probably didn’t really understand.

zoe_tiptoe_tritone_smAdverbs can indicate we’ve dropped the ball and gotten lazy. I gingerly walked across the wet street… the adverb, gingerly, tells me I might want to re-examine the sentence to see if I can’t find a stronger verb. I tip-toed across the wet street, or I cringed with each soaking and tentative step… that kind of thing.

Can you never ever, no way, no how, use an adverb? Gosh, golly, gee… that’s mindless rigidity in my book. Sometimes an adverb allows brevity we may need. These adverbs, you know, they are actual words. We CAN use them.

I barely noticed the stubble of whiskers on his chiseled jaw. I like the adverb in that sentence. It says exactly what I want it to say. Oh, I noticed… but I’m telling you I wanted to believe his handsome beard shadow didn’t make me all tingly inside. I could have eliminated the adverb and reworded the sentence:

The stubble of whiskers on his chiseled jaw almost made me swoon, but I managed to act as though I didn’t notice. I’ll stick with barely. It’s more succinct. It says what I want it to say. Of course, there are a million ways to word that sentence. I know and you know I could word it in a better way and avoid that adverb, and maybe I would choose to do it. You see, this is why I say the adverb is a red light. We may want to stop and give it a looksie to find out if we can make it better. Maybe we can, maybe it’s fine the way it is. Let’s not get all rigid and rule-crazy about. Let’s understand why we keep it, or get rid of it.

This is what writers do. We look at every sentence… again, and again, and again. We have other people look at our sentences. We strive to communicate our thoughts in the cleanest, clearest way, so our readers can experience optimum enjoyment of the story we’ve written. And yes, rules help us do it. Hates them or not, we must understand and use them when required.

So, in essence, give those adverbs a look. Your sentence might be far more interesting if you get rid of the lazy adverb and replace it with a kick-butt verb. Or maybe your sentence says exactly (see what I did there) the perfect word for that sentence. Rules are there for a reason, but another cliché’ tells us they are meant to be broken. You are the best judge of what you’re saying and how you say it, but you must understand why you are following a rule. Knowledge is power. If you understand why you are following a rule, your writing life will all begin to make much better sense.

By the way, I’ll never write a blog post about spelling or comma usage. Not. My. Wheelhouse!

All grammatical corrections are welcome. I know you editor types cringe when I mess up. Problems are in here… I’m sure of it. If you tell me about them, we all learn! Go ahead and sound off about your opinion on adverbs. We learn through discussion, and I’m always open to ideas presented in an intelligent and constructive way.Background speech bubble

22 thoughts on “Stinken’ Adverbs and Why We Hates ‘Em

  1. Catching up so finally read this. Good one!

    Actually, I occasionally find myself absentmindedly and innocently using unseemly, astonishingly, genuinely, haphazard(ly) adverbs. Other times I stealthily, surreptitiously, blissfully and childishly insert an adverb to get a reaction, which is often obnoxiously, viciously, icily, offensively and mockingly received. This indubitably results in surprisingly, tremendously condescendingly, remarks pointing out my famously, obviously erroneous use of the English language, of which I am well-schooledly adept. I even like to enthusiastically and vehemently make up words like “well-schooledly.”

    Sincerely and delightfully yours,

    • says:

      Too funny. When I came across well-schooledly, I raised an eyebrow. Hey, a writer should be able to make up a word now and then. No doubtedly. 😉

  2. I love this blog! I, too, adore using adverbs in my writing – and nudge myself every time it happens. I’m going to remember to try to use a kick-butt verb instead. You always help me, Gina. Thanks!

    • says:

      Ah, but Becky, you are a poet. That’s different than fiction. You’d best consult a poetry guru on that one. (By the way, YOU are my poetry guru!)
      You and Lucy!

  3. Well said. I always do a search for -ly words at the end and try to get rid of as many as I can, but sometimes, like you said…they are better left in certain sentences. Good luck on your speaking assignment.

  4. I agree–sometimes that adverb is needed. I’m currently reading the newest JK Rowling book. Lots of adverbs in it. Doesn’t bother me at all because they’re used well and contribute to the sentence.

  5. Few rules in the English grammar are absolute, and if you consider dialogue, there are absolutely no absolutes. Some characters prefer noun and verb disagreement, for instance. The point is, you have to know the rules to know how to break them wisely (see that adverb? and it’s dangling a bit) When it comes to adverbs, I write them to get the idea on paper. Then I stop and attempt to reword the sentence, trying in all ways to rewrite without an adverb. If the effort becomes too strong, creating sentences like the one about the man’s stubble above, then I realize the adverb is the right word. But sparingly (an adverb in its own right) is the right way to utilize adverbs in your work. At that’s what I teach when I’m asked for my two cents. *smile* Good post, Gina.

  6. Mary Jo says:

    I really liked this article on adverbs, the bastard word-children of authors. It’s a breath of grammatical fresh air to empower us to use any and all word choices available, tempered only with context and effect desired.

    Thanks for the insightful work, Gina.

  7. Hear! Hear!

    The idea that one should never use adverbs is astonishingly, absurdly, even laughably, misguided. Adverbs are great words. It’s just that verbs are, too. Consider your sentences (not just your adverbs). Read them to yourself and feel their potency or their weakness. Try to feel whether they are truly doing what you want them to do, and adjust them accordingly. (From the stealth editor.)

  8. says:

    Oh, and thanks for the comment. Anyone reading these comments should know, Victorine is my computer guru. She helped me figure out how to make this website work!!

    • says:

      Hmmm. So, are you getting this email notification from the old site, or the new one, Victorine?
      I transferred followers, but if you didn’t transfer, then it must be you follow me through FB or Twitter. Wondering what I need to fix. 600 some followers I would sure like to take to the new blog!!

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