Except in certain circles, grammar tends not to be a source of great controversy, nor something that inspires strong opinions. Most people, and even many authors, use rules of grammar and understanding of grammar as best practices that help enable clarity of communication. Some people, like me, get a little too fixated on the rules of grammar, like avoiding dangling prepositions. The outlier is a particular part of speech that many people, and not just those who wield the pen on a regular basis, apparently love to hate: adverbs.
The Oxford dictionary of language defines an adverb as “a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group.” You might remember them from school as those words that often end with “-ly,” although there are plenty of examples of adverbs that don’t have such an ending. As for why people have such strong opinions about them, it mostly boils down to linguistic directness. The oft-cited example is that, instead of saying “really bad,” we ought to say “terrible.” The latter case allows us to use fewer and stronger words. English teachers and textbooks make this argument because strong, active language is favored in writing that is intended to persuade or describe, which includes the majority of writing taught in schools. Authors and books about writing fiction will make much the same argument.
Given my well-documented love of synonyms, and language in general, you might think that I would fall naturally into this “avoid all adverbs” camp, and it’s true that I will almost always choose to say “terrible” instead of “really bad.” However, I am far from willing to entirely foreswear adverbs. Far from a crutch, adverbs allow us to make our language more precise. They also enable tailoring of language and character voice/dialogue. You may have noticed that in Blood Magic I will use more adverbs when I’m writing Kiluron’s dialogue, or writing from his perspective, than I will when I am writing Doil. Adverbs, used properly, can provide a more colloquial tone and feel to a passage, while avoiding them will give writing, in my opinion, a more sterile, forceful feeling.
Consider a simple, common, horribly overused phrase: “I have a really bad feeling about this.” If I have Kiluron utter such a cliché, but excise the adverb so that he instead says “I have a terrible feeling about this,” it has a markedly different effect upon the reader. The simpler, more cluttered phrasing with the adverb communicates something different from the objectively cleaner and more direct phrasing without the adverb. The sentences I’ve used to talk about adverbs have included a plethora of them, and had I left them out, the meaning would have been diluted or altered. Like so many oft-reviled things, adverbs do have their place.
I admit that there is something to be said for avoiding adverbs. The arguments about stronger, more direct language are not wrong per se; sometimes, direct language is not the goal. It would be more accurate to say that I desire to inject a degree of nuance and complexity into what too readily becomes a black-and-white debate (as I attempt with so many matters of controversy). There are multitudinous situations in which it is best to forgo adverbs. There are also situations in which their inclusion is completely appropriate, perhaps even desirable.
My entire argument could be reduced to “know what you’re doing.” You can use adverbs, but you don’t want to use them as a crutch. I use adverbs with some frequency in Blood Magic: some of those I should change to strengthen the writing, but many of them I keep through revisions because I think they make the scene more vivid for the reader. If you’re going to use adverbs, make sure that you know how they will affect the writing, and how an alternative would have a different affect. Once you’ve made that decision, then you can decide if it’s worth breaking this particular “rule.”
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