Adverbs get a bad rap. Don’t use them, we hear. They’ll make you look like a novice. If your first page has an adverb, an agent will never request more material. And so on, and so on. But the truth is, there’s more to the no-adverb rule than just, “Don’t use them, ever.”
First off, what IS an adverb? That telltale “ly” ending is (usually) a dead giveaway, but there's more to it than that. According to the good book (also known as the dictionary), an adverb is--get ready--“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, 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.”
Phew. So, to sum up, an adverb is a word that modifies another word. (As I used to tell my middle school students, if the word modifies a noun, it’s an adjective. If it modifies any other kind of word, it’s an adverb.)
Well, that’s great, right? Adverbs modify other words, so they provide more information and add dimension…right? So what the heck is so wrong with them?
What’s wrong with them is that they often add unnecessary dimension--that is, the adverb is a weaker word than an alternative, or it’s redundant. Consider the following examples:
“Hurry up,” he said quietly.
She really liked corndogs.
He walked carefully past the principal’s office.
In the first sentence, “said quietly” is weaker than “whispered” or “hissed.” Same thing with the other sentences: Instead of saying “really liked,” why not say “loved”? Instead of “walked carefully,” why not “tiptoed” or “crept”?
As for redundant, check out this example (which could be a direct quote from SEE THE SAMELINGS’s first draft, I might add):
“Hurry up,” he whispered softly.
“Softly” adds absolutely nothing to this sentence, as a whisper is soft by definition. (Yeah, it took me a whole draft to figure that out.) You can ax it without losing any of the sentence’s meaning.
And that’s the litmus test for deciding whether an adverb is worthwhile: Does it add unique meaning to the sentence, meaning you can’t get from any other word (or from any fewer words)?
Consider this passage:
Daniel shoved his hands in his pockets. “Well, uh, thanks for coming.”
Clara couldn’t meet his gaze. “I had a nice time.”
He kicked the porch step. “Guess I’ll see you on Monday?”
“Yeah, sure. Monday. Mr. Monte’s class.”
“Mr. Monotony, you mean.”
She giggled, too loudly. “See you on Monday, then.”
Horror of horrors! TWO adverbs in a four-word sentence, “She giggled, too loudly,” and right in a row. At first glance, you might be tempted to give both “too” and “loudly” a good slash with your red pen. But look again. If you take away “too loudly,” the sentence’s meaning changes. And the whole passage loses some of its awkward giddiness.
So adverbs themselves aren’t the villains, but (some of) the situations in which we use them are. The trick is to figure out which situations are adverb-approved, and which aren’t. And nobody--nobody--can decide that but you.