#secondthoughts: an argument for adverbs

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing recently, about the advice given by writers, to writers, and ultimately editing.  Writing and, primarily but not exclusively, the editing phase, is a lot like sculpture: it’s about starting with a block of an idea, of some collection of words, and removing all the extraneous words until you can’t remove anything else without fundamentally moving away from what you want to say.  This isn’t an original description, but is one that I have used with my day-job students, because this works with factual writing as well as fiction.

One of the things that I tend to focus on when editing my students’ work – scientific issues/intellectual agenda aside – is that of ensuring that we don’t repeat ourselves.  That can be quite tricky to deal with sometimes, because you need to link back to things that you said earlier, but in a way that doesn’t just repeat what you said the first time.

Different people have a different focus.  One piece of advice that a lot of people seem to like is to strip out all the adverbs – Hemmingway App (which I like a lot, but disagree with everytime I use it) allows you a ration of so many adverbs per chunk of text.

Adverb:  a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When it comes to editing, adverbs are an easy target: ‘using an adverb to modify a verb just means that you didn’t use a strong enough verb in the first place’.  Whilst that is sometimes true, this is something that does need some thought when it is applied – removing all the adverbs can limit your palette significantly.  Who am I to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King on this subject?  I’m certainly not suggesting that they don’t know their craft.  Recently though, I’ve seen a few descriptions of editing out adverbs which have given me pause.  The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

One example I’ve seen suggests that “walked slowly” is bad and could/should(!) be replaced by “crept” or “tip-toed”. I don’t know about you, but I rarely tip-toe, even – perhaps especially – when I’m walking slowly.  The nice thing about walking slowly is that it can be used in a range of contexts, whereas crept, for me, should be reserved for spies and school boys on their way to class.

So next time you’re editing, do ask yourself whether you should really be using that adverb or not, but don’t automatically reach for the delete key either:  English is a varied language, and all the more beautiful for it.


If you are interested, Hemmingway App, pegged this as Grade 12, and thought that I should have only used 3 adverbs.  I used 14.  To be fair, it is tricky to write a piece about adverbs and not use any.  It also thought I should change ‘exclusively’ to ‘only’ and ‘modify’ to ‘change’.  You can see why writers get cross with editors, from time to time.

© 2018, David Jesson

6 thoughts on “#secondthoughts: an argument for adverbs”

  1. I love that writing has rules, but what I love even more is the growing confidence in and knowledge when to ignore those rules. The rules are there for a good reason and we can all provide examples to back them up. Equally, we can produce great examples of when they can be stepped right over. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly: possibly slightly too glib, but my gut tells me that there are very few pieces of writing that you remember because they were perfectly written. You write-off the stuff that is badly written, but it’s the stuff that breaks the rules with purpose that you remember.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post!

    One of the problems in using programs/apps for editing of any sort is that they have a very limited sense of context so will mechanically count or check without understanding why a particular word is used instead of another. As you hint above English, in its many forms, is a surprisingly (at least to many people) nuanced language and a word which does not have the proper ‘balance’ in its sentence is unconsciously flagged as wrong. Sometimes, of course, that is the effect the writer wants but it may still niggle the reader.

    I am of an age to have been thoroughly grounded in the way English works and how and why ‘rules’may be broken and I resent being told by a grammar checker that a word or phrase is incorrect. No, it is not – it is what I meant to say and I had a particular reason for saying it that way!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly – but it’s not just the programs/apps. There are many writers, some well known, who are trying to institute new rules…

      Liked by 1 person

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