What are adverbs?
A word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g. gently, quite, then, there).Oxford Dictionaries Online
In this post, we consider adverbs being used to modify verbs.
Most of us learned at school that a verb is a ‘doing word’.
A word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.Oxford Dictionaries Online
Why do some people criticise the use of adverbs?
Some writers think that good writing should not include adverbs. This dislike is based mainly around the fact that they believe using adverbs is lazy, and that they tell the reader what a character is feeling or doing rather than showing them through emotions and actions. However, when used correctly, adverbs can add clarity. But adverbs can detract from a story when:
- They tell what’s already shown by the dialogue tag.
- They repeat what is obvious from dialogue.
- They repeat the meaning of the verb (double telling).
Simple examples of adverbs
In the examples below, the verb (in bold) is modified by the adverb (in italic).
He ate slowly again.
Isabelle spoke arrogantly to her colleagues.
She looked expectantly at the man sitting alongside her.
Hector sniffed frantically at the suitcase.
Adverbs don’t always end in ly. Sometimes, a short phrase is used to modify or describe the verb. This is called an adverbial phrase.
Vikram clapped his hands in delight.
Tommy cried like a baby.
Is the adverb repeating the dialogue tag?
The purpose of a dialogue tag is to indicate which character is speaking rather than how they are speaking, but it’s very common to see adverbs added to dialogue tags. Often, the adverb has the same meaning as the dialogue tag, e.g. she murmured quietly: murmuring is quiet by default. Quietly can be removed as the dialogue tag is strong enough to stand by itself. Alternatively, the dialogue tag can be replaced with said and used with the adverb. Said is often thought of as a boring dialogue tag, but it is actually very effective as it tends to be invisible to the reader. The reader will be concentrating on who is speaking and what is being said, rather than being distracted by over-descriptive dialogue tags.
‘Are you OK?’ she murmured quietly. (murmuring is quiet)
‘Are you OK?’ she murmured.
‘Are you OK?’ she said quietly.
‘I hate you,’ he shouted loudly. (shouting is loud)
‘I hate you,’ he shouted.
‘I hate you,’ he said loudly.
Does the dialogue make the adverb unnecessary?
Writing dialogue that reflects the emotions and moods of the characters, and adding in action beats are ways of reducing reliance on using adverbs with dialogue tags.
Consider the examples below:
‘I’m so tired. I was awake at 4am with the alarm next door,’ they said sleepily.
‘I’m so tired. I was awake at 4am with the alarm next door,’ they said.
They yawned. ‘I’m so tired. I was awake at 4am with the alarm next door.’
We know from the dialogue that this character is tired due to a rude awakening at 4am, so the adverb sleepily is not necessary. In the third example, adding in an action beat further shows their tiredness.
‘Give me £500 or I will publish those photos on Twitter,’ said Steve threateningly.
‘Give me £500 or I will publish those photos on Twitter,’ said Steve.
‘Give me £500 or I will publish those photos on Twitter.’ Steve smirked and folded his arms.
It is clear Steve is threatening someone, so the adverb threateningly is redundant. The action beat in the third example shows that Steve thinks he has the upper hand.
‘Oh, I am so happy and thrilled to be here,’ said Ana in an excited voice.
‘Oh, I am so happy and thrilled to be here,’ said Ana.
‘Oh, I am so happy and thrilled to be here,’ said Ana, dancing around the room.
The dialogue makes it clear that Ana is excited, so telling us that she is speaking in an excited voice is not necessary. The action of dancing around the room leaves us in no doubt that Ana is excited.
Is the adverb double-telling?
If the existing verb is strong enough to explain what is being done, then it may not need modifying with an adverb. Below are some examples of strong verbs that tell us what is being done, but they have been used with adverbs that repeat the meaning of the verb – also known as double-telling.
Antonia shrieked loudly as a mouse scampered in front of her.
Shrieks are loud.
Patrick strolled leisurely along the promenade.
Strolling is leisurely.
She glared fiercely at the rude man in front of her.
Glares are fierce.
He guzzled his beer greedily.
Guzzling is drinking in a greedy way.
Precious narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
Narrowing one’s eyes usually involves regarding someone with suspicion.
‘I hate you,’ she whispered quietly.
Whispering is generally quiet.
If we remove the adverb in each case, the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change and we can still understand what each character is doing.
Antonia shrieked as a mouse scampered in front of her.
Patrick strolled along the promenade.
She glared at the rude man in front of her.
He guzzled his beer.
Precious narrowed her eyes.
Stronger v weaker verbs
You may want to consider using a more expressive verb to replace a less descriptive verb that has been modified with an adverb. Consider the examples below and note how the new verb makes the sentence more interesting.
I walked quickly to the post office.
I marched to the post office.
I’m on a mission to get there as soon as possible.
Andy ate his lunch speedily.
Andy devoured his lunch.
We can envisage that Andy eats at speed.
Ruby smiled widely at the camera.
Ruby beamed at the camera.
It’s easy to imagine a very smiley Ruby.
Adverbs in published fiction
Bestselling authors use adverbs, and I don’t expect that they are worried about those that criticise their use! I think the following extracts are good examples of how adverbs can be used effectively in different ways.
A Place to Bury Strangers by Mark Dawson (Chapter 5, Kindle)
This example uses the verb shifted with the adverb uncomfortably. Without the adverb, the verb would not have got across the fact that York was uncomfortable with the conversation.
‘She’s been seeing a boy.’
‘Isn’t that par for the course for a girl her age?’
York shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Yes, of course, and I wouldn’t normally interfere in her business but he’s not a good sort [….].
How to Raise an Elephant by Alexander McCall Smith (Chapter 2, Kindle)
In this example, the adverb firmly is essential so it is obvious that Mma Makutsi is being assertive. Using said alone would not get her determinedness across.
‘Ninety-seven per cent,’ said Mma Makutsi firmly. ‘I will ask them for ninety-seven per cent of what they owe. That will give them a three per cent discount.’
Dead Man’s Grave by Neil Lancaster (p.2.)
In this example, the bleak Scottish weather and the time of day help the reader to imagine why the character would need to walk quickly and be wheezing heavily. Describing the character as just walking in the late afternoon chill would be very flat.
He walked quickly, wheezing heavily in the late afternoon chill as the cold mist began to creep across the landscape from the North Sea. He shivered as the damp, clammy air bit at his exposed skin.
Sleepy Head by Mark Billingham (Chapter 3, Kindle)
She laughed loudly. Not filthy, positively salacious. Thorne laughed too, and grinned at the waitress as his second cup of coffee arrived. It had barely touched the table when Coburn’s bleeper went off.
If the adverb loudly was not included, the image of how loud Coburn’s laughter is, and how it is probably filling the cafe would not be as strong.
- There is nothing wrong with using adverbs if they add meaning to the text.
- It’s easy to fall into the trap of double telling. Read the sentence out loud without the adverb to see if the meaning is the same, or come back to the text after a few days and read it with fresh eyes.
- Does the dialogue tag repeat the meaning of the adverb?
- Does the adverb give the same information as the verb? If so, consider removing it. Your writing will be tighter as a result.
- Opt for including stronger verbs and/or action beats instead of adverbs where possible.
A Place to Bury Strangers, Mark Dawson, Unputdownable, 2021
Dead Man’s Grave, Neil Lancaster, HQ Digital, 2021
How to Raise an Elephant, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, 2021
Sleepy Head, Mark Billingham, Sphere, 2008