You, the writer, the creator of worlds, the person who paints with words, probably aren’t interested in taking a little crash course on the subject of adverbs. I get it: the word adverb doesn’t sound like it was created by some lovely Muse in a diaphanous gown, stepping elegantly through the soft grasses of Mount Parnassus. The word adverb probably drags up images, sounds, and aromas far less exalted: school bells hectoring young sleepers to class at 7 A.M., the sharp crack of Sister Mary Loretta’s ruler on your knuckles as you stammer over the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and the unmistakable effluvium of Billy Smith’s brown-bagged bologna and mayonnaise sandwich, fermenting somewhere in the depths of his school desk.
But if you want to know how you can use adverbs to infuse life into your writing and understanding into your readers as they become acquainted with your characters, you’ll stick around—I promise I will NOT smack your knuckles with my wooden ruler if you need to take a minute to remember some of the rules.
First of all, what is an adverb? Here’s a very basic answer: an adverb frequently ends in “ly,” modifies a verb, and answers one of these questions: When? How? Where? To what extent? And just to make things clear with repetition: adverbs often, BUT DO NOT ALWAYS, end in “ly.” Let’s look at an example below:
An example of an adverb modifying a verb…
The man danced gracefully.
The man (noun) /danced (verb)/ gracefully (adverb). The adverb gracefully describes for us the quality of the dancing, and answers the question HOW? How did the man dance? Why, he danced gracefully, of course (as you can plainly see above)!
An adverb can also modify an adjective…
An adjective is a word which modifies a noun.The words bumpy and red are both adjectives. If we want an adverb to modify an adjective we could write:
The road was fairly bumpy.
The word bumpy is the adjective in this sentence and fairly is the adverb; in this case the adverb tells us TO WHAT EXTENT the road was bumpy.
An adverb can also modify a clause…
A clause is a word grouping consisting of a subject and a predicate—or noun and verb—such as:
Johnny is the subject and belched is the predicate, and if we want to modify belched with an adverb we can write loudly after belched as in, Johnny belched loudly (which is really the only way I have ever heard people of Johnny’s gender belch).
An adverb can ALSO modify another adverb!
Did you know that an adverb can also modify another adverb? Find the adverb in the following sentence:
Gertrude slipped her coat on fast.
All right, I know that was a little tricky! The adverb is fast (I just wanted to demonstrate to you what I said before, that all adverbs do not end in “ly”). HOW does Gertrude get into her coat? She slips into it fast. Now, how could we use an adverb to modify the adverb fast? This way: Gertrude slipped her coat on quite fast. Or, Gertrude slipped her coat on so fast. Or, using an “ly” adverb, Gertrude slipped her coat on extremely fast. The adverb here answers the question TO WHAT EXTENT?
Adverbs/adverb phrases are used to answer
- WHEN: tonight, yesterday, on a sunny day…
- HOW: with a can opener, with a key, carefully…
- WHERE: there, here, outside…
- TO WHAT EXTENT: quite, almost, very, a good deal, sort of…
Avoiding a Ruler to the Knuckles
Improper Use of Adverbs When Modifying Verbs
Let’s talk about modifying verbs. We use adverbs to enrich the meaning of verbs, so we need to make sure that the adverbs we select do just that. If the adverb you choose doesn’t enhance your verb, don’t bother using that particular adverb. Let’s look at an example:
1). Harris screamed loudly.
Harris is screaming. Screaming, by its very nature, is loud. Have you ever heard someone scream softly? No, the whole idea of the scream is to be heard “loud and clear,” as they say. So adding the word loudly to this sentence does nothing to enhance it. How about “Harris screamed angrily,” or “Harris screamed suddenly” or “Harris screamed hysterically“? Don’t these adverbs say a lot more about Harris and his feelings (or his emotional stability perhaps) than “loudly”?
How else can someone sprint but quickly? It doesn’t matter whether a child of eight is sprinting or an elderly gentleman of eighty is sprinting; the child will naturally sprint faster than the elderly gentleman, but, in both cases, each individual is moving at a higher rate of speed than is normal to them. That’s what sprinting is all about. If you really want to enhance the sentence, how about “The postman sprinted gracefully away from the growling dog,” or “The postman sprinted awkwardly away from the growling dog”?
Clenching is a tightening of something: maybe your jaw, maybe your fist. There is no reason to add the word tightly to the above sentence. But you may want to clue us in to WHY Barry clenched his jaw, right? Or what he was feeling when he did it? So, in order to help your readers understand his feelings at the time, you might write: Barry clenched his jaw nervously, or Barry clenched his jaw indignantly. The words nervously and indignantly actually tell us something about Barry’s state of mind or how he feels about the situation in which he finds himself. The word tightly tells us nothing we don’t already know.
If you would like help making your manuscript as polished as possible before submitting it to agents or before self publishing, please feel free to contact me. I’ve been working with writers and editing their manuscripts since the year 2000, and I have never once struck a writer on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Click here or at the top of this page for my submission guidelines, rates, and to read articles pertinent to your writing life.
Jean Foster Akin
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