You’ve had it said to you.
You may even have said it to others. You, in the corner, slinking away, you’ll continue to say it, because you’ve heard it from better authorities than I am, so it must be true.
“Adjectives, like adverbs, are lazy words, slowpokes, tranquilizers. Watch out for them.”
–Jack M. Bickham
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
–William Strunk and E.B. White
(And I’d just like to point out in passing that that’s not what adverbs are for.) (and this)
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
But what do these things really mean? Go through the writings of any of these authors, and look for adverbs. None of them omit adverbs when they’re needed. They do not heed their own advice. And they shouldn’t. A friend of mine recently declared that she was obviously not a real writer and never would be, because she couldn’t quite stamp out all the adverbs in her work. I think (as of right now) that I have her convinced her “friends” who tell her these things are wrong, and part of what convinced her was going through one of Mr King’s books and highlighting all the adverbs. Of course, I had to disabuse her of the notion that all adverbs end in ly, and all words ending in ly are adverbs, a misapprehension that is almost as common as the belief that there are “passive verbs” in English. (Hint: there are no such things.) There’s no real doubt that Mr King is a great writer. Even those who don’t read his work, or who don’t read “horror” at all (as though that is all he’s ever written), admit that he’s one of the better writers of our time, and seeing the constant rain of adverbs in his pages opened my friend’s eyes to the difference that exists between what people say and what they do. Last I heard from her (yesterday), she’s off to re-read everything her online “support” group has written, looking for adverbs. Methinks I won’t be surprised, although she might well be.
I defy you to tell me anything about the barn on the hill without using adjectives and adverbs.
Tell me how big it is. Tell me how old it is. Tell me what color it is. Tell me what it is made out of. Remember, no adjectives and no adverbs! And remember, don’t just look for ly. Anywhere, somewhere, nowhere, everywhere, upstairs, downstairs, abroad, ever, never, always… The list goes on and on. Now, you were going tell me what about the barn?
Crickets chirping. Quietly.
Of course, adverbs can be overused.
Or used inappropriately. So can nouns. So can verbs. So can pronouns and conjunctions and prepositions. So what? “Don’t use adverbs inappropriately. Don’t overuse them.” That’s what all the fuss means? That’s the best you can do? Fine, I won’t. I promise, ok? Feel better now?
How about if we look at how adverbs actually get used?
Let’s take a look at how often they get used in real life – in speech, in writing, in academia, and so forth. In order to do that, we have to do a “corpus search.” A corpus search is a search of one or more collected bodies of “real life” text, taken from both written language and oral language. I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is the largest freely-available corpus of English, and the only large and balanced corpus of American English. It was created by Mark Davies of Brigham Young University in 2008, and it is now used by tens of thousands of users every month (linguists, teachers, translators, and other researchers).
–taken from COCA’s search page
I apologize for the quality of the image, but I’m trying not to let the file get too big. If you can’t read this image, go to COCA, click on “POS LIST,” select “adv.ALL,” select “CHART” display, and run the same search I did.
Here’s what I got:
So, really and truly, fiction doesn’t use any fewer adverbs than spoken language.
In other words, fiction doesn’t use any fewer adverbs than we use in real life. Because we need them. Because without them, we can’t say much at all.
Oh, look! Newspapers and academic writing use considerably fewer adverbs. If you want your novel to read like a newspaper or an academic treatise, by all means, stomp out all those adverbs. Otherwise, use the words you need, don’t use the words you don’t need, and tell those who can’t do to stop teaching.