Why I Am Proudly, Strongly, and Happily in Favor of Adverbs

Defending a much-maligned part of speech



I am gladly, fully, openly in support of adverbs.

Despite our democratic ideals, schoolchildren throughout America learn that not all words are created equal: Nouns and verbs make sense of the world, but adverbs only muck it up. The end of November—National Novel Writing Month—means that hundreds of thousands of people who took a crack at writing a work of fiction in 30 days will soon be drawing on that advice. They've caught their breaths and now it's time to polish their prose. If my own writing experience is any indication, they will make the easiest edit earliest: If it ends in -ly, kill it.

The best writing guides support that technique. Strunk and White's Elements of Style is the first resource for many writers who care about quality; adverbs, the authors say, can be "cluttery" and "annoying." In On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the reader learns again that "most adverbs are unnecessary" and that they "clutter" and "annoy." Stephen King's On Writing cautions that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." The fourth of Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing is an admonition against modifying the verb to say. "To use an adverb this way (or almost any way)," Leonard writes, "is a mortal sin."

As is fitting for the authors of the best writing guides, these anti-adverb crusaders make a good, nuanced point. Good dialogue doesn't need anything beyond "he said" and the right verb can likewise speak for itself.

Such rules also make it easy to teach writing, even as the debate rages over whether it's a skill that can be taught or an innate gift. Writing isn't math. It has no Pythagorean theorem, but it's simple to ban adverbs. In many cases, doing so can improve the work in question, as it encourages writers—children, adults, newbies, veterans—to think about structure and diction. The no-adverbs rule only becomes problematic when students don't learn—just like how there are many words where "e" comes before "i"—that there are times when the rule is meant to be broken.

Even those most famous rulebooks couch their points in qualifiers. Dig past the section headings, and Strunk and White aren't always against an adverb. It's in the rush to get it right that those who rely on those rules replace Zinsser's "most" with "all." We forget that there are exceptions, that an adverb can go a long way.

Examples abound. Without "lightly," we would be having breakfast at Tiffany with Holly Go. Without "darkly," we would not know how we see through a glass. Without "merrily," we would row, row, row a boat down a stream and think it a nightmare. We still wouldn't give a damn, just as Rhett Butler didn't in Margaret Mitchell's original Gone With the Wind, but without the addition of "frankly" we wouldn't have one of the top movie quotes of all time.

Adverbs don't just make a sentence memorable, they change its meaning. Sure, there are many times when a more precise verb can narrow the gap in understanding—but some verbs can't be fine-tuned any further. A sigh is just a sigh, but anyone who has ever been in love knows how important it is to distinguish between when she sighs happily and when she sighs otherwise.

It's not that adverbs aren't often unnecessary. In screenwriting parlance, an acting instruction meant to make up for lazy, nondescript dialogue is known as a "wryly," so called after the overused parenthetical direction—and nobody wants to be accused of relying on wrylies. It's that adverbs are no guiltier than any other part of speech. A noun can be nonsense. A verb can be vague. A preposition can be improper. An adjective can be antiquated. A conjunction can be confusing. Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn't mean they're evil. Some—those that help the current move "ceaselessly" at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go "boldly"—are downright great.

The only way to learn the difference is from the supreme writing teacher: reading. Reading great books, great magazines, great blogs—and reading a lot—allows you to internalize what works and what doesn't. Read great sentences until you can tell when one isn't. Read great paragraphs until their rhythms get stuck in your head.

Only by reading can you know when an adverb belongs in a phrase and when it belongs in the trash. Then you can write beautifully. You can write masterfully. You can write cleanly.

You can write however you want—and you can tell us about it with an adverb.