An adverb is a describing word. However, unlike an adjective (they modify nouns), adverbs modify verbs and adjectives. Sometimes, adverbs get a bad reputation, though. Sometimes, they can bog down your writing, making your reader feel like they have to trudge through each sentence, dragging themselves every step. Other times, though, adverbs can offer emphasis or clarity, which is an awesome tool to have in your back pocket.
But, how can you tell if an adverb is helping or hurting? Here are a few ways you can tell.
Before you can begin to take adverbs out of your writing, you’ve first got to learn to spot them! This can be tricky because adverbs are the easiest to move around in a sentence. They can appear in a sentence as the first word, the last word, or anywhere in between.
Adverbs answer the questions how? when? where? and why?
For example, if we say
The man gestured vaguely towards the door.
we can identify “vaguely” as the adverb because it tells us how the man gestured.
Or, if we write
Now is the time to act.
we know that “now” is the adverb because it tells us when something should happen.
Another strategy is to search for the -ly ending. The great majority of adverbs actually end in this way:
Yep. These are all adverbs! If you’d like to see more examples, check out this list.
When to Take Out the Adverb
If you take out the adverb and the sentence still makes sense, leave it out.
One of the most commonly made errors with adverbs involves including an adverb that just plain doesn’t need to be there. And the biggest problem word? “Very.” We constantly say things are “very _______.”
Some examples include:
She was very happy.
The party was so fun.
He is quite annoying.
We can take out those adverbs, and none of our sentences would lose any value or information:
She was happy.
The party was fun.
He is annoying.
Be mindful of trying to add emphasis where it isn’t needed, and you’ll find plenty of adverbs that need to take a hike.
If your adverb modifies a verb, try finding a stronger verb.
Sometimes, verbs use adverbs as a kind of crutch to give the whole picture. But, most of the time, you can actually remove the adverb and replace the verb with a more specific one. The image you want to paint remains the same, but your writing improves.
Here’s an example:
The child walked sneakily and quietly through the dark house.
In that sentence, we know that the child is moving through the house as though he doesn’t want to be seen or heard. But, if we use a more specific verb, we can eliminate the wordiness and still have a complete picture:
The child crept through the dark house.
If you’re having trouble coming up with a better verb, consider using a thesaurus! That’s a great resource to help you find the perfect word for your sentence.
If it’s getting repetitive, take out the adverb.
Adverbs, themselves, don’t really add any action to your writing. They just describe that action. However, if you’ve already got a good verb in place, adding that adverb makes the scene or description repetitive.
For example, let’s look at this sentence:
He sprinted quickly across the field.
In this sentence, we have the verb, “sprinted,” and the adverb, “quickly.” Think about it. Is there a way to spring slowly? That’s pretty doubtful. “Sprinted” is a specific verb, so it already gives us a good mental image of how this person was moving. Adding “quickly” just makes the sentence repetitive, so we should take it out.
When to Hang On to Adverbs
While it might seem like adverbs are just writing traps that’ll bring your writing down, that isn’t always the case. Adverbs can be a wonderful asset! Take a look at the following criteria to see if that adverb actually belongs in your writing.
- The Adverb Provides Clarity
- Example: “She colored her page carefully.” vs. “She colored her page haphazardly.”
- The Adverb Provides Emphasis
- Example: “She instantly recognized the connection between the two.”
- The Adverb Adds to the Flow of Your Writing
- Example: “The applicant comes highly qualified and highly recommended.”
Want to learn more about parts of speech and adverbs while getting help from a real-life writing coach? Check out our Supplemental Seminars!