“I Need a Total Rewrite,” Tom said Retrospectively (in defense of adverbs)

“Can you fly this plane and land it?”

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious . . .and don’t call me Shirley.”

This is how one Grammar Girl podcast about adverbs begins.  Here, you can listen to it or read the script for yourself.

I love this quote from the movie Airplane, and I’ve been known to use it at times myself.  Remember:  men quote lines from movies; women quote things that men don’t remember saying.  “Surely” is a perfectly legal word, an adverb modifying the verb “be” (or is it modifying the word “serious” or the entire sentence? I’ll leave that to the grammar purists out there.  Makes my head hurt).  An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun.  An adverb modifies everything else, not just verbs but also adjectives and other adverbs.  They are a handy weapon in the writer’s arsenal.  Perfectly legal word, I’ll say again, and in this case the adverb “perfectly” modifies the adjective “legal.” 

Rough drafts of my own writing are chock-full of adverbs.  Always.  The reason is because they are so handy.  The burglar moved silently up the stairs.  The word “silently” flows naturally from my train of thought.  How did the burglar move up the stairs? I might ask myself two words into the sentence.  Silently, of course.  Nothing wrong with this sentence at all.  It’s good.  But it’s not great.

Whenever I notice an adverb in my own writing, it makes me pause to ask myself if I could have, perhaps, crafted a better sentence.  Arguably, the burglar crept up the stairs is a better sentence, since the past tense form of “to creep” is a more precise action verb.  The word “crept” bothers me, though, now that I think about it.  I don’t like the way it looks on the page.  In this case, I might opt to go with the original sentence, adverb and all.  And, I could do so without violating any pernicious rules of grammar.  An adverb throws up a red flag, but its use is not necessarily a stop sign.  Sometimes I just like the way a word aids the flow of a sentence, its musicality and rhythm.  More often, my choices are instinctive, and subject to change (rewrites can be tortuous for me). 

The one place I forbid myself the use of adverbs (at least in rewrites) is in dialogue attribution. 

“I can’t believe you left me without saying anything,” she said sadly.  

The adverb “sadly” is unnecessary, since the emotion should be apparent in the sentence itself.  Or, maybe it’s not apparent at all, and the she of the sentence could be angry instead of sad.  If I felt that I needed to clarify this, I might write it this way:

“I can’t believe you left me without saying anything,” she said.  Her eyes shimmered with tears.

Okay, that may be a bit overblown.  Having written this new sentence, it occurs to me that the attribution “she said” itself becomes unnecessary.  The description of her eyes, however puffed up it may be, does the job of identifying the speaker on its own.

The worst outcome of overusing adverbs in dialogue attribution is that it grows repetitive and draws attention to the writing, when your goal should be to make the writing invisible as you suck the reader into the story.  This type of writing always makes me think of Tom Swifties, which are adverbial puns.

Here’s a few examples:

“The prisoner is coming down the stairs,” Tom said condescendingly.

“The situation is grave,” Tom said cryptically.

“That certainly took the wind out of my sails,” Tom said disgustedly.

Swifties are fun.  You would probably prefer to keep your reader’s mind on the story instead of thinking about adverbial puns, however.

The acid test for using an adverb is a simple one.  Why are you using a modifier in the first place?  Because without it your sentence will be unclear.  At times my use of adverbs serves purely as filler.  “Purely” in the previous sentence may have been an example; omit the word and the sentence still stands on its own.  In a case such as this one, I would strike the adverb, knowing that it was one of my stylistic crutches.  Other times, as in the case of the creeping burglar, the adverb was describing “how” the burglar was climbing the stairs.  Could I find a better way to describe this?  Maybe.  I didn’t like the word “crept” much, but I could have said that the burglar inched his way up the stairs or he moved catlike (“catlike” is also an adverb in this situation since it modifies “move,” but it hides better without a -ly tail flapping in the breeze.

Ultimately, this is the writer’s choice, or that of his editor.  If you suspect that your adverbial usage is the result of laziness, then a rewrite is your best solution.  If you prefer your sentence with the adverb intact, then leave it alone.

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