Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Adverbs: Parts of Speech in Writing

As I continue my journey through most of the parts of speech, today I’m going to write about adverbs. I’ve already written about action verbs and linking verbs so the obvious next choice is adverbs. They’re the words that describe verbs, after all. Because I’m an author who is learning as I go, and because I’m an editor who tries to learn new things so I can give good advice, this blog will be about how to use adverbs affectively and how to avoid them to make your writing better.

So what is an adverb? An adverb is the part of speech that describes or “modifies” verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They usually tell how something is done, but they also tell when, where, and to what extent. A large number of adverbs end with –ly which makes those words easy to identify.

Stephen King says the road to hell is paved with adverbs. He’s obviously generalizing, but a quote like that suggests writers should try to avoid adverbs. I’ll get to the words to avoid soon, but before I do that, I’m going to say that you can’t always avoid adverbs in your writing.  For instance, adverbs like now, later, then, soon, today, tomorrow, never, sometimes, before, after, forever, and many others—they tell when, and writing would suffer without “when” words. Adverbs like here, there, somewhere, anywhere, someplace, up, down, inside, and many others tell where. Those words are important. And just try to write without using words like too, so, not, and very. Those words typically describe adjectives and other adverbs, telling “to what extent.” I’m pretty sure Stephen King, though, is talking specifically about –ly words. I’ll get to specifics about those in just a bit.

First, however, I need to focus on a common grammar error regarding adverbs. Adverbs describe verbs; adjectives don’t. Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. So when you’re describing an action, you need to use an adverb. A person doesn’t sing good; they sing well. Good is an adjective; well is an adverb. A person doesn’t talk loud; they talk loudly. A person doesn’t drive bad; they drive badly. Loud and bad are adjectives, but in the sentences, they are describing talk and drive. Both of those words are verbs, so they need adverbs (loudly and badly) to describe them. Knowing the parts of speech will help writers avoid grammar errors like those. And here is another issue with adverbs.

I mentioned that very is an adverb telling “to what extent.” But words like very, so, extremely, and really can definitely be overused, especially when there are good, specific adjectives you can use to avoid them. Instead of “very hungry,” a person could be “starving” or “famished.” Instead of “too loud,” music could be “raucous” or “deafening.” Instead of being “so happy,” a person could be “ecstatic” or “delighted.” Instead of being “really troubled,” a patient could be “anxious” or “distressed” or “unsettled.” Instead of “not happy,” a person could be “angry” or “dejected.”  So Stephen King could be right by saying adverbs are a problem. But most likely, he was talking about –ly words.

Before I get to that, however, adverbs could be a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. A better verb needs to be used instead of a verb with the adverb modifying it. Instead of a person who “ran quickly” down the street, a writer could say he “raced” instead. Instead of saying “Martin spoke clearly,” I could say he “articulated.” Instead of saying the injured player “limped noticeably,” I could say she “hobbled” or “staggered.”

Next, adverbs can strip your writing of intensity, emotion, description, and action. Let’s say I’m writing and I include the following line of dialogue.

 He grabbed her arm tightly. “Come with me now,” he growled menacingly. “You won’t need a coat where we’re going.”

That seems descriptive, but how about this instead?

He seized Katie’s arm in his meaty hand. His gritted teeth and his cruel, bloodshot eyes alarmed her. “Come with me…now. You won’t need a coat where we’re going.” His threatening voice left no doubt that she was in danger.

Sure, the second example is wordier, but it’s descriptive. A reader can visualize the character, the action, and the emotional fear and intensity.  

Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said' . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.  (Leonard Elmore) 

Also, adverbs can be an annoyance in dialogue. Their use makes for lazy “telling” instead of “showing.” There are many levels of problems with adverbs in dialogue tags. I’ve seen things like “he ordered demandingly.” Well, that’s redundant. Ordered implies—maybe even means—something was being demanded. Just say “he ordered” or “he demanded” or, better yet, "he said" and describe the manner in which it was said in the action.

Another issue is that the adverb is used when it is meaningless. It says nothing the reader doesn’t already know.

Bob slammed his fist through the drywall. “You make me so mad!” he said angrily.

Duh? Fist-slamming, exclamation mark, and the word mad aren’t enough? Heck, I don’t even need any kind of dialogue tag. Bob’s name is in the sentence. I know who said the words, and I know he was angry.

That leads to my final issue with dialogue tags using adverbs. Sometimes they literally insult our intelligence and become an inconvenient annoyance. Let’s say you were at a play and two characters were on the stage having a discussion. What if one said, “I need to get to the hospital”? Then a third party walks on stage and says, “Mike is anxious right now.” Then he exits the stage and the other character says, “I know you’re worried. How about if I drive you there right now?” Then the third party walks on the stage and says, “Jenny, is concerned and is trying to be compassionate.” Wouldn’t that be horrible? I mean, Mike could be biting his nails and pacing. He might have let out a big sigh. Jenny might have touched his arm with care and had compassion in her eyes. In the audience you can see the anxiety and concern. It’s the same way with writing. Show with your description how Mike and Jenny are feeling. Don’t tell it by saying “he said anxiously” or “she said compassionately.” Use your descriptive details and actions to show the emotion. And if there are only two people in the conversation, your paragraphing and characters’ names in the description will show who is speaking. Don’t annoy your readers by telling them things that they can ascertain themselves.

Adverbs are one of the eight parts of speech. They’re going to be used in your writing, whether in phrases or in individual descriptive details. But don’t overuse them. Learn how to identify them (-ly words in particular) and see how many you would do better without. It’ll make your writing better, and that’s what you want anyway, isn’t it?