November 12, 2008: In Praise of the Lowly Adverb

You know, adverbs get a bad rap, treated like unwanted guests at the feast. Writers are advised to go through their manuscripts and replace every “ly” word they find, swapping a modified word with an unmodified one.

As a general rule, I agree with this advice but, as with all generalities, it doesn’t apply in every case. Sometimes using an adverb is the way to go.

I use them in two cases: when there is no single word that says exactly what I want to say; or when avoiding the adverb uses more words than the idea to be expressed warrants, and there is no single word to express that idea.

To me, synonyms are words that are mostly, not exactly, alike. Murmur is not exactly the same thing as mumble, neither of them is exactly like mutter, and none of them has quite the same feeling as speak softly or speak quietly. It’s because of those subtle differences that I can’t use mutter, mumble or murmur to eliminate the adverbs in speak softly or speak quietly.

Other times, using an adverb gets me over rough ground as lightly as possible. In the dreaded second scene of Dragonfly, Mr. Enser says something plaintively. The text of his language provides no clues to his inflection, which signals a shift in the tone of the conversation. I could have shown the shift in six or seven words describing what Ilsabet hears and sees that add up to “plaintively”, but the more words I use, the more weight the thing described has. This shift in tone is small enough that six or seven words are too many.

This is not to say I recommend or even endorse profligate use of adverbs. More often than not, I’d rather use mutter, mumble or murmur; more often than not, I’ll use the six or seven words to convey details that add up to plaintively. Adverbs are like hot sauce; sometimes the dish needs it, but a little bit goes a long way.


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