Adverbs (and adjectives)

Published by: Catasshe on 12th Sep 2017 | View all blogs by Catasshe

I'm currently engaged in a heated debate with my mother on the use of adverbs. Her comedic story is littered with 'firmly', 'gradually' and 'dangerouslies'... I'm trying to convince her that all these need to go, but she remains grimly (that's one of hers too...) unconvinced.

She argues that these words lend colour, while I argue that they are redundant, annoying, and lead to more telling end less showing. 

Is this 'no adverb' thing really a modern fashion? I have a feeling older novels may have used more of them. (Fielding, Austen and the like) 

Is it true adverbs are coming back into fashion in popular fiction?

I personally agree with Stephen King about them... how they're like dandelions. What are your views on adverbs (and adjectives) Cloudies?



  • GippsGirl
    by GippsGirl 9 months ago
    It's the difference between telling and showing, isn't it? Once one learns that substituting 'ly' words in favour of more compelling descriptions, it's irritating to read work peppered with them. I don't think they need to be avoided altogether, but a judicious use demonstrates a better quality of writing. Good luck in changing your mother's mind, Catasshe!
  • L.
    by L. 9 months ago
    My personal opinion is that a lot of the time when we use adverts it is because we haven't chosen a verb strong enough to describe the action so I would choose a better verb rather than using an adverb. Of course it is not always and it doesn't say that sometimes they can be used but as a rule I try to stay away from them. But again that's just my opinion.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 9 months ago
    I'm not sure if it's fashion to dispense with adverbs so much as a long term development in writing. If it is fashion, it's fashion for good reason and I don't see it being one that's likely to change any time soon. As with all these things - adjectives, speech tags etc - I wouldn't say 'never', but when you do use them it's so much better if that use is sparing and has been earned. And as GippsGirl says, often it's symptomatic of telling when it would be better to show. I.e. 'he screamed furiously' vs '"&*(&*$," he yelled, his face turning purple and a vein on his temple throbbing as Jimbob stepped back to avoid flecks of spit' or whatever.
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 9 months ago
    I think they have a place in a certain style of comic writing but should be looked at carefully (oops!) to make sure each one earns its keep.
  • Catasshe
    by Catasshe 9 months ago
    Thanks all, I agree with all your points. I have not managed to convince the mother. She firmly and vehemently and unwarrantedly likes the things. Ah well.
  • Woolleybeans
    by Woolleybeans 9 months ago
    Totally agree it depends on what they add.

    There isn't anything wrong with telling, and sometimes it's better, but as with all writing it's a case of knowing what impact your choices are having and choosing what works. Not that it will always work for everyone.

    I have issues with speech tags - as in, I tend to stick to said and asked most of the time, using other speech tags sparingly, and so seeing a piece which wants to spill every speech tag available over the page winds me up. But other people like it and I know I've read books as a kid where I've not even noticed.

    I agree with the strong verb comment, as well. Verbs are wonderful, and sometimes an adverb can detract from a better verb.

    As for Austen, I love her work. Massively. But she also put semi-colons in places that seem unnatural to my 21st C eye, just as Dickens has a healthy crop of commas where a modern writer would usually pull a few up by the roots. I don't think I'd want to read a modern book in either style, brilliant thought they both are.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Catesshe,
    I have just read all of the Father Brown stories. Chesterton writes: 'There once walked a man in a costume of very conspicuous cut and colour, wearing a vivid magnet coat and a white hat tilted on ambrosial curls, which ended with a sort of Byronic flourish of whisker' . You could cut that to 'a man once walked in clothes of an antique flourish." Perhaps clothes of a Byronic flourish?
    I had been trying to edit a grandfather's book and he was prone to this. Every sunset is purple.
    BUt he also had a unique style and it would be one of the reasons I would argue that he had written a minor classic of Gothic fiction. I found the editing rather difficult and needed help, so the project got abandoned. One problem is that some of his prose sentences are lines of poetry,
    I find the same problem with his uncle. This time Regency prose is the issue. Is the word Georgian used to describe this style. The sentences are elaborately constructed and irony is always present. I am thinking of cutting three of his travel books into one short version, but I would concentrate on the Regency style.
    I saw a play called Bodikka'' last week and the dialogue seemed to go all over the place, as if the playwright could not decide on modern speech or some sort of Ancient tongue.
    I think the word for the prose might be Augustine rather than Georgian, The travel books have a modern style when compared with some of his compatriots!!!
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    I am reading Beryl Bainbridge and she uses adverbs sparingly. But Instead of ‘She said,’ she writes, ‘She echoed’, she babbled’ ‘she replied.” She enquired” etc. Her use of adjectives is sparing but effective. ‘The rays of the sun caught the scarlet hangings on the second landing and splashed the stairs with crimson.‘ This is one of her sentences. It might be too descriptive for modern tastes, but I really enjoy her books and I think she has a great writing style. I wonder what your mother thinks of Beryl’s sentence? I remember being told to only use ‘he said’ after any line of dialogue.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Can’t spell. Augustun refers to an earlier period than Georgian. According to a Wiki, the terms are often confused. Whoops! There is a play on in London concerning the Augustan period. It is called Queen Anne and there is a subplot with Jonathan Swift as one of the stars. I enjoyed the play but somebody told me it has not been a popular success.
    I don’t see why adverbs cannot be used ‘She giggled nervously’ can mean something different to she ‘giggled.‘
    In defense of your mother I shall start the first sentence of novel with a verb and an adverb.

    Sandra giggled nervously,
    It was not that Tom ever said anything witty,amusing or untoward. He had merely commented that she looked pretty that evening.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    ‘ Their finest hour.” I saw this film last week and it reminded me of the Ealing comedies.
    Perhaps your mother saw it? The film was based on a book ‘called ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ by Lisa Evans which was published in 2009. I found a copy in a big London bookshop yesterday,where it was filed under romantic fiction, and read it last night.
    You mother showed a willingness not to follow rules which sounded promising but there are few adverbs in the novel and not all that many ‘she said’ either.
    The film is pretty much an adaption of the book. Lisa Evens had worked as a BBC producer of comic shows which probably explains why the film is successful.
    Both the film and the book work as comedy but I rather prefer Beryl Bainbridge. The characters in ‘Their Finest Hour’ wear woolen clothes, whereas Bainbridge’s characters are close to naked. I had read ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ and this had been made into a film which flopped completely. It was set in Liverpool and nobody could understand a word anybody said, I do not know why actors do this? I saw a play two nights ago and about a third of the dialogue was incomprehensible. I had to look up the play google when I got home -to read the reviews of a previous production -to find out what it was all about.
  • JD
    by JD 9 months ago
    I'm reading Robin Hobb's "Liveship Traders" trilogy at the moment. She's a great writer and I love her world and characters and she herself has a great backstory eking out a living in the Alaskan wilds, but I do want to tell her to ease up on the -ly pedal at times:

    "I should be going," Davad realized belatedly.
    "Must you?" Ronica heard herself replying reflexively.

    I mean, Davad could do a number of things to suggest his belated realisation. We've all been there; we know that, when we overstay our welcome, we stand up as if we have just remembered a pressing appointment, announcing our decision to depart in too-bright tones. And when we hear the words coming out of our mouths even while our brains cringe, we can identify all the more with Ronica. It's clunky to tag dialogue like this. It doesn't show character, it shows what the author wanted, without actually delivering. It's a placeholder. But then, her daughter, Althea:

    "[she] observed Mild diligently sanding some splintering from a railing nearby".

    It's unobtrusive, showing a little bit of the cabin-boy and the lady's impression of him, and therefore some of her own personality. There are sufficient good words around it to rein it in and use it to best effect, playing the perfect third fiddle to the rest of the sentence. It's rather sweet, I think. So I think adverbs can work - but like anything, there is a place for them.
  • Scheherazade
    by Scheherazade 9 months ago
    I will out myself as an adverb fan. They can add colour and humour. A great example from Maggie Shipstead's 'Seating arrangements'. "He gazed piningly at the bar." P G Wodehouse also used them to great effect. OK some are used lazily - as are other parts of writing, but it annoys me when people say they should not be used.
  • mad_iguana
    by mad_iguana 9 months ago
    It's largely a style thing, isn't it? In some cases (as in many of the examples above, where people have suggested not to use an adverb, but to use a "better" verb, the adjective "better" is unavoidable) not so much, but largely it is.
    I find myself in a first draft throwing in lots of adjectives and adverbs, and then in subsequent reviews removing many of them, but sometimes the rhythm of a sentence demands it, and demands it loudly, vociferously and quite repetitively.
    In the end, it is to my eternal, undying shame that I will unrepentantly include a small sample of appropriate adjectives and adverbs wherever my uncivilised brain feels it is indisputably necessary.
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