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Brenda Townsend Hall

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A Closer Look at Adverbs
by Brenda Townsend Hall   

Last edited: Monday, October 06, 2003
Posted: Monday, October 06, 2003

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It's not enough to be sparing with adverbs; take care how you choose them and place them.

Adverbs and adverbial phrases can be used:

  • to supply additional information abut the circumstances such as place, time, frequency or manner of an action: he parked the car the car nearby; she told me the news yesterday; I'll try to explain clearly

  • to indicate the speaker's or writer's attitude to information: frankly, I don't believe you; fortunately, no harm was done; they will probably be late

  • to modify the effect of an adjective: it's really cold today; that's very kind of you; I'm rather tired now

  • to modify other parts of speech: he's sleeping very heavily (another adverb); the bullet went right through his arm (a preposition).

The main difficulties writers have with adverbs is knowing how to position them and, as with adjectives, over-using them. In addition, many adverbs, especially those showing degree, are imprecise and make meaning vaguer than it would be without them.

The position of adverbs has been subject to some artificial and some meaningful rules. It is taboo, we are frequently told, for an adverb to split an infinitive, i.e. come between the 'to' element and the base verb. The logic here is that the infinitive with 'to' is a single item and cannot, therefore, be divided. In reality this rule is broken so often that its value has to be questioned. Adverbs have a natural tendency to stick close to the word they modify and, since the 'to' element of the infinitive is so light on meaning, it is not surprising that the adverb gravitates towards the base form of the verb as in the well-worn quotation: to boldly go.... Rather than slavishly obey the rule, writers need to ponder the effect of splitting or not splitting the infinitive.

With some adverbs, however, the position is crucial. 'Only', 'merely' and 'even' should be placed directly in front of the word they modify if ambiguity is to be avoided. Many writers fall into the trap of placing 'only' before the verb: at home I only drink coffee in the morning.
In this position the effect of 'only' is to suggest that you could do other things with coffee than drink it, but the writer probably meant one of the following:
Only at home do I drink coffee in the morning.
At home only I drink coffee in the morning.
At home I drink only coffee in the morning.
At home I drink coffee only in the morning.


As a writer you shouldn't be afraid to state your case. All too often we water down our point by using such adverbs as "rather", "somewhat" or adverbial phrases such as "to a certain extent", "by and large". The effect of this is not only to weaken the impact of the writing but sometimes to nullify the effect of a word altogether: I was somewhat overwhelmed by the reception they gave me. As to be "overwhelmed" is to experience an extreme reaction, it is rendered meaningless if the writer tries to modify the effect by using "somewhat". Perhaps that example is not so extreme as "rather unique", but it's almost as bad.

It's important too to make a distinction between speech habits and writing habits. We use words such as "rather" in conversation in order to not to seem too abrupt, too rude, too aggressive; it's like having our cake and eating it: we use the strong word but indicate that we don't to hurt anyone's feelings by diluting it: I was rather disappointed by your attitude; I found the food slightly bland.
In writing, unless we are reproducing dialogue appropriate to a character, we should take more care to select the word that captures exactly the feeling we wish to convey, rather than resort to adverbs, thus "rather angry" would be better expressed as "irritated".

The other way in which less experienced writers use adverbs is to throw in an afterthought about the way something is done or said: "I can see you're in a good mood," she said sarcastically. "That's ridiculous," he replied furiously. In such situations the emotions or attitudes of the speakers should be evoked through the context and the dialogue itself thus rendering the adverbs gratuitous. If additional information is required, then try using a stronger identifying verb:
"I can see you're in a bad mood," she carped.
"That's ridiculous," he growled.

If you decide to go along that route though, be sparing in your use of such verbs as they can be intrusive, drawing attention away from the dialogue itself.

As with adjectives, it is helpful to know the effects that different kinds can produce. Many adverbs of manner or those used for sequencing can help your style to be economical. A single adverb can often replace an adverbial phrase: in angry manner/angrily; with confidence/confidently; first and foremost/first; in the second place/secondly.

Web Site: Worlds Apart Review

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader)
Good article. I see people, writers who should know better, parroting something they've read, about not using adjectives or adverbs. They are essential to a good story, and good sentence structure, unless you want your work to fall flat. Writing from the heart, and having a 'voice' requires using both. Well done.
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