Monday, June 15, 2020

Treat Adverbs Fairly

By Denise Loock

Adverbs could file a lot of harassment complaints against writing experts. How many workshops have you attended where the facilitator said something like this: Get rid of adverbs. Only amateurs use adverbs. Adverbs are tools of a lazy writer?

Many well-meaning instructors quote Stephen King who said, “The adverb is not your friend.” A few sentences later, he added, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”[1]

So what’s the truth about adverbs? Should we get rid of them all?


Even King acknowledged, “I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.”

Let’s take a closer look at the adverb. Adverbs limit, broaden, or qualify the meaning of a word. For example: I went to the store yesterday. John lives next door. Sally never eats fish. Writers need to convey time, place, frequency, and probability. That’s an adverb’s job. Adverbs also indicate direction and degree. For example: Turn right onto Elm Street. She handles adversity better than most people. Allow the adverb do what it does well in your sentences.

The problem arises when writers ask adverbs to do the work of an adjective or verb. For example: John walked very slowly up the hill. You don’t need adverbs in that sentence. Instead, choose a more precise verb: John trudged up the hill. Another example: Sally picked up the extremely small piece of glass and examined it. Why not use a better adjective? Sally picked up the tiny piece of glass and examined it. If Sally’s a scientist, choose microscopic; if she’s British, choose wee.

In the “good sport” quote above, King noted a second problem with adverbs: dialogue attribution. And he’s right. Skilled writers don’t use phrases such as said sarcastically, whispered sweetly, or shouted angrily. Instead, use an action, let the dialogue convey the emotion, or employ both tools: Jack slammed the book on the table. “How dare you put my name in your tell-all trash.”

Like every other part of speech, adverbs add value to our language. Use one when it’s the right word for the job. Omit the adverb when it’s a poor substitute for a more precise or more effective word.

I’ll close with one more reference to Stephen King. He doesn’t omit all adverbs—not even ly ones. Consider this excerpt from On Writing: “Sondra had a[n] … uneven voice, as if she were always speaking through a throatful of tightly packed phlegm.” You be the judge. Should he have omitted the adverbs, or were they the right words for the job?

[1]Stephen King quotes are taken from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), pp. 124–125, 78.

(Photos courtesy of, Stuart Miles, and Sira Anamwong.) 


Denise Loock is an editor, author, and inspirational speaker. She is a general editor for LPCbooks, a division of Iron Stream Media. She also accepts freelance editing projects from writers who want to submit clean, concise, and compelling manuscripts to publishers (

Denise is the author of two devotional books, Open Your Hymnal and Open Your Hymnal Again, which highlight the scriptural truths of classic hymns and gospel songs. She is the founder of Dig Deeper Devotions, a website that encourages Christians of all ages to dig deeper into the Word of God. Three collections of devotions from the website are available on Amazon: Restore the Joy: Daily Devotions for December, Restore the Conversation: Fifty Devotions on Prayer, and Restore the Hope: Devotions for Lent and Easter.

Denise teaches two online PEN Institute courses: Sentence Diagraming 101 and Editing Devotionals 101. She also writes “Mind Your MUGS,” a grammar and usage column for Christian Communicator.

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