For a lot of people, “adverbs” mean all those pesky words ending in “-ly” that tell rather than show, but it turns out there’s more. A lot more. Would you believe it if we told you that a huge junk of our words are in fact adverbs, maybe even a majority of them? Well that’s what we’re talking about today, starting with an in-depth look at what exactly adverbs are. From there, we discuss why so many writers seem to hate them, how they can best be used, and when you really should cut them out.
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Wes. And with me today is—
Wes: And the title of this podcast is: “Adverbs. Why all the hate?” And I’m not asking if the adverbs are the ones doing the hating. We’re talking specifically about the hate that is often directed at adverbs.
Chris: Poor adverbs.
Wes: Poor adverbs. I mean, I’m planning on having us explore all sides of this, and there are some good reasons and some bad. But before we do that, we should probably just start by answering the simple question, what is an adverb?
Chris: Okay. So, my theory is that there were a bunch of people in their ivory tower and they were like, hey, let’s call these words, nouns, and then let’s call these words, verbs, and these adjectives or articles or conjunctions. And now, let’s just take everything else and call it an adverb. That’s my theory.
Oren: I accept this creation myth.
Wes: Do you want to embellish more on Chris’s creation myth, Oren?
Oren: I mean, it just became increasingly clear to me as I was Googling adverbs, that I have no idea what an adverb is. I had to write them all down, ‘cuz I had, you know, you’ve got the ones that everyone knows and is mad about, which are the “-ly” words. I am exploring this “slowly,” taking a very long time. And then there are other ones that are in the same category that don’t end in “-ly” and that people don’t know as much about. You could say that the elections are coming soon, and “soon” in that sentence would be a sort of standard adverb. Then you have interrogative adverbs, which I can only assume that they made, because I’m a bad person and I deserve to be punished.
Wes: It is your fault, yes.
Oren: Yeah. This sounds reasonable and I’m very sorry I inflicted this on the rest of you. And those are things like, “when” is apparently an interrogative adverb, like “when did the event occur?” You have relative adverbs, which can be a location; “this is the house where I grew up,” where is a relative adverb, and this is all stuff that I got off of Merriam-Webster (Dictionary). So I don’t understand any of this. I’m just reading it out.
Wes: Well, that’s fine. Let’s backpedal. When and where are not adverbs. They’re pronouns, but they’re part of this situation where, when people say “don’t use adverbs,” they’re doing a very specific thing, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But I think the main thing that you should think about is, what is an adverb? Their job is to basically answer questions. This is how I remember learning it in elementary school, and teaching it later on in life. But, an adverb should be answering the questions when, where, why, in what manner, to what extent. So this means that they give us information about time, place, manner, cause, purpose, condition, results, reasons, contrasts. They do a lot. And Chris is right. I’m pretty sure that when Grammaticus sat down and wrote his book, he did all of the things and then got to the rest of it and got tired or maybe just died. I’m not sure. (laughs) Or maybe he transcended.
Chris: But not “what,” right? Because nouns answer “what.”
Wes: Exactly. Yeah. Adverbs don’t get to touch “what.”
Chris: What about “how”? That’s verbs, right? Or not? Maybe this framework just doesn’t work with all words in the English language.
Wes: No, “how” is the purview of adverbs, because “in what manner” is how.
Chris: Right, “in what manner.”
Wes: But because they can answer that many questions, it’s no surprise that they have myriad forms. An adverb can be a single word, as in “speak clearly.” It can be a phrase, “speak in a clear voice,” and it can be a clause; “speak as clearly as you can.”
Chris: Oh, wow. So “in a clear voice” is together an adverb?
Wes: That whole thing is an adverb.
Chris: Oh my God, I’m having an existential crisis.
Oren: I don’t like this.
Wes: (laughs) I know.
Oren: Why this is happening?
Wes: You guys are going to continue to hate me. The rest of you listening, you could just turn us off, (laughs) but Chris and Oren are stuck.
Oren: So what else is an adverb? Let me guess. Are there paragraph adverbs? Is there an entire paragraph of text that’s an adverb?
Wes: I’m about to read you some, so get ready.
Wes: So, I said that they answered the question “when,” so … time for an example sentence, and you’ll be able to guess the adverb. “These orders can be filled as soon as stock is received.” So when can the orders be filled? “As soon as stock is received,” that’s the adverb.
Oren: Oh, gosh. No.
Chris: Right. So “as soon as stock is received” is all an adverb?
Oren: Oh no.
Wes: Yeah. So let’s do one for “where.” “I was advised to live where the climate is dry.” Where was I advised to live? “Where the climate is dry.” That’s an adverb.
Chris: Oh, geez. Okay.
Wes: Now this one, we’re talking about “in what manner,” right? “She worked as though her life depended on it.” How did she work? “As though her life depended on it.” That’s an adverb. Right?
Oren: My God.
Wes: They do conditions and extents. “Please write me at once if you have any questions.” What’s the condition? “If you have any questions,” that’s an adverb. And then, finally, reasons is another area for adverbs. “We cannot fill your order now, because our plant is closed in August.” I’m not intentionally trying to confuse anyone. I’m trying to say that you can’t just put on your hat and give somebody some writing advice and say, well, if you just remove all the adverbs from your writing … and it’s like, no, adverbs make up the bulk of our writing.
Chris: I mean, I think the common thought is that, what an adverb is, is something that modifies a verb. Right? I think it just fits our idea of, well, adjectives modify nouns, and then adverbs modify verbs. Of course, adverbs do everything. So that’s not correct, but I think that’s what we commonly think of, but this seems sort of impractical, definition-wise. Is there a word that is only applied to words that modify verbs? Do we have one? Can we have one, please?
Wes: So, maybe that’s going to be our new direction forward on Mythcreants is to coin that. To throw more confusion at it, yes. There are more specific adverbs. I’ll give you some examples here. There are conjunctive adverbs, and these are words like besides, however, moreover, therefore, consequently, accordingly, thus.
Chris: Oh, wait. So if I’m correct “and,” “or,” or “but,” those are conjunctions, right?
Chris: But if we have thus, that’s not a conjunction, that’s a conjunctive adverb?
Chris: Oh, geez.
Oren: I can feel myself actively refusing to intake this knowledge.
Wes: Just maybe let it bathe. Maybe bathe in it.
Oren: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll be fine. Just going to let it wash over me.
Wes: And the reason why it’s an adverb is because adverbs, one of their jobs is to talk about manner and to what extent or degree or condition. And so, a word like “thus” is stating a condition after something that just came before it.
Chris: Okay, what about “so?”
Wes: “So” is a synonym with “thus,” in a lot of cases.
Chris: Okay, so it is also a conjunctive adverb.
Chris: Am I wrong if I just call it a conjunction? (laughs)
Wes: Technically, yes.
Chris: Aw, geez.
Wes: But actually, they are more often just called—and this makes total sense, right?—a transitional expression.
Oren: Yeah, sure.
Wes: You know, it’s an adverb, but that’s way easier to keep in your brain. Other ones, and you’re right, mostly they’re just paying attention to modifying a verb, modifying an adjective, or modifying another adverb. Yeah. Adverbs modify adverbs. It’s just a spiral staircase of nightmares.
Chris: It’s recursive adverbs all the way down.
Wes: One of the forms they can take is just a sentence adverb, and we do this, actually, all the time in speaking, is when you start a sentence with “hopefully,” lalalala, or “maybe,” lalalala. Like these, they’re not necessarily being tied to one part of speech in the sentence. You’re using that adverb to indicate doubt or possibility about the entirety of your statement. And the role with that is usually to provide emphasis, which is why they’re coming at the beginning of the sentence, or they’ll arrive at the end of the sentence. And when we’re speaking, we tend to actually draw extra emphasis to those as well. “Maybe, I’ll see what I can do.” “I’d like to go to the show tomorrow, hopefully,” or “I’d like to go play D&D with you on Saturday,” blah, blah, blah, all those kinds of things. Other types, these are rarer, certainly. And you see them in writing, unless you guys hang out with people that have incredible vocabularies, but there are phrasal or compound adverbs. And this is when you make an adverb and moosh a bunch of words together.
Oren: I love mooshing words together.
Wes: These are fun, right? Like thereupon, heretofore, and notwithstanding, which is probably the more common one.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Oren: I did always wonder how notwithstanding became one word. ‘Cuz like, what happened here? Was there some kind of tragic word traffic accident and we just got smooshed together real hard.
Wes: Yeah. I mean, maybe, who knows, back in the day when all the languages were just going about their day and—
Chris: So, I assume “notwithstanding” is one word by convention now, not because it’s used in a particular way.
Wes: I think what happened is it lost its spaces because it was used so frequently. And the point is, yeah, you’re looking at it, you’re like, Not. With. Standing. Okay. That’s three words. But then the point of like the adverb is, what role is it playing? What question is it answering? And so notwithstanding, probably was just used so frequently together that it just got adopted as one word. One adverb, basically. And then three other types—and this applies kind of across the board in different types of things that might be modified—but basically, just your average adverb is called a simple, flat, or positive adverb. And this is the one that—Chris was asking, is there one for just verbs? This one generally is what we think of when we think of an adverb, but it’s a simple adverb or a flat adverb, or a positive adverb. So this is an example—
Chris: Simple, flat, or positive. Okay.
Wes: Exactly. So this is like, “the nurse spoke softly,” “the choir sang merrily,” “I ate hungrily.” (laughs) I don’t know. That’s terrible. We’ll get to the terribleness of these later. And then, two more types, real quick, comparative adverbs. That’s the thing. So if there’s two things you’re comparing, like “Rachel studied more industriously than Ingrid.” And then, if you’re comparing more than two things, then there’s superlative adverbs, which is when you get into things like, “he studied most industriously.” I don’t know. “He casts magic most best.” (laughs)
Oren: It was probably a depressed mage, honestly, but—
Wes: Yeah, there we go.
Chris: I have to say, after hearing all these definitions, it’s like, do we really need to specify the answer to “why all of the hate?” (laughs) “Adverbs. Why all the hate?” Well …
Wes: (laughs) Yeah. I mean, we could do it. We could probably do a cast and just pick any part of speech “why all the hate,” and then once I start drilling into this this way, you guys are probably just gonna set me on fire one day.
Oren: I mean, I am starting to wonder if we’re talking about language parts or subatomic particles here. We got the simple adverb, the flat adverb, the up adverb, the down adverb, and the spin adverb. Right? I feel like you could just start substituting in quark terminology, and this would all make just as much sense.
Chris: Does this particular adverb have a negative or positive charge? Do they cancel each other out?
Wes: Wow. You guys are actually talking about what we commonly call phrasal verbs, but are actually just a verb plus an adverb serving as a compound unit.
Chris: Oh my gosh, I—
Wes: So if you look up, the “up” is functioning as an adverb there, it’s technically—yeah.
Chris: Oren, what have we wrought? This is …
Oren: We have made mistakes.
Wes: You two and listeners out there, I promise I’m getting to a point, but you have to just keep slogging through this mess. Other reasons why there’s hatred and confusion around adverbs, is that the same word can have two forms, and both are the adverb. Close and closely. Both of those can be the adverb. Short and shortly. Slow and slowly. Widen and widely. Quick and quickly.
Chris: Does it depend on how they’re used in the sentence?
Wes: Exactly. It depends on how they’re used in the sentence. It depends on a regionalism, like colloquialisms and things like that. But they can mean the same thing. And so, if somebody says you need to go through and edit out all the “-ly” adverbs, but somebody wrote, “he studied hard,” that’s grammatically correct, but it’s not an “-ly” adverb. But then if I said “he hardly studied,” it suddenly changes meaning. So there’s tricky things with that. And that’s another frustration, is that adverbs that have different forms but are basically the same, depending on where they’re used in the sentence, can dramatically alter meaning, which is frustrating, like “ship the goods directly,” or “they were directly responsible.” “They arrived late.” “I haven’t seen her lately.” They’re the same. They’re all adverbs in that case, but the form is enough to change the meaning of what’s being stated.
Chris: So, I think what I seem to be hearing here is that, as opposed to pointing out a word and being like, “that’s an adverb” in the way that you would usually do with a noun or an adjective or often a verb, adverbs are more the role that the word plays in a sentence and less, “these words are adverbs.”
Wes: Yes. And that’s such an important takeaway. And that’s why plenty of adjectives end in “-ly” as well, like early, only, daily, weekly, yearly. Those can all be adjectives, right? Like fast, long, hard. Those can all be adjectives, as well. If you’re told to go back in and revise and pay attention to your adverbs, you need to really know actually what you’re looking at, and it turns out, there’s a lot of things at play. And that’s why I think it brings us to this “why all the hate” question and all of my silly buildup, is that I think the laziest writing advice you can give somebody is to cut out all the “-ly” adverbs. There were parts of Stephen King’s On Writing memoir that I enjoyed. I don’t enjoy his claim that the adverb is not your friend. I was trying to dig into this, and I think that there’s a history of this approach that comes originally, probably from the Elements of Style when that was published in the early 20th century, where they talked about it, I think in more correct terms. But then Stephen King, even the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk. He wrote a book. I think it was called Stranger Than Fiction, not the Will Ferrell movie.
Oren: Oh, that’s too bad.
Wes: (laughs) Yeah. He also said something like, don’t use silly adverbs, like sleepily, irritably, sadly, or things like that. And I just—it bothers me because that advice is reductive. It’s not educating anyone and it’s not properly explaining the situation. I decided to get on my copy of Strunk and White, and they couch their adverb advice into two categories. And this is getting at the heart of what people mean when they’re talking about removing adverbs. So one of them is, “don’t construct awkward adverbs.” That’s the advice. And I’m like, okay, that makes sense. But they mean, think about how people talk. How often do you hear someone say, oh man, yesterday I climbed weirdly into bed. Right? Like, oh man. My lamp cord lies tangledly beneath my chair.
Oren: I mean, I think people should talk like that.
Wes: We could. If we started talking—it’s just funny.
Chris: It sounds like Edgar Allen Poe, honestly, that’s the impression I get, is suddenly we can turn any sentences into an Edgar Allen Poe’s sentence.
Wes: And when you go back a hundred years or so, I think that there’s a degree to which that could be … this actually, isn’t a fair statement. I was going to say that that could be forgiven for experimenting, but I guess the other thing is, in the 19th century, they didn’t have so many style guides as we do today. We have tons of them, advocating their hegemonic views on us. But here’s the real thing, and this is from Strunk and White, and this is the truth, and this is why anybody says you should just cut the “-ly” adverbs out of your writing, is Strunk and White tell us, “don’t explain too much.” That’s the advice. And they have a little paragraph, and the thing that they focus on, mostly, in that paragraph, is dialogue tags, which we’ve talked about—Chris, you’ve written about extensively—is we’re all reading this story. There’s plenty of context. Why do you need to say that someone shouts angrily?
Chris: Yeah. It goes back to the showing and telling.
Wes: And that right there is the core of this, and it’s great advice. It’s always sound advice. You always write really excellent blogs on this advice. It’s just that that “-ly” adverb is the most conspicuous thing you can immediately spot in a piece of writing, as an example of somebody telling instead of showing. It’s so obvious.
Chris: Yeah. And I do think that the obviousness very much encourages the hate, right?
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: It’s the kind of thing where it’s easy to spot, and it’s something you might normally, if you weren’t thinking about it, you would overlook it. But once you start thinking about it, you can easily spot it, and then from there, it’s this weird downward spiral where it jumps out at you, and you notice it, and it becomes really annoying, and I think it’s similar with other things like dialogue tags.
Wes: I completely agree with you. And I think what we see, and one of the reasons why you always want to show instead of tell, is showing requires a lot of practice, and really hard work to do it properly, because you develop your craft, you hone your writing, but part of that experience—besides simply writing more—is reading and learning and expanding your own vocabulary. Because if somebody is writing that yesterday, Oren was very angry.
Oren: That’s true.
Wes: (laughs) Very is the adverb there. So the question is, “very angry,” that’s two words, is that what I’m expressing? And you can understand how there might be a degree between very angry and furious, but for the most part they’re synonyms. I think there’s a strong case there, and if you’re looking at somebody’s writing, sometimes having more words can be a detriment. And if you’re using an adverb to modify an adjective, when one adjective already exists, it does that job. Then it can work better, maybe a little bit, without as much of a jar, like a transition. So you don’t run fast, you sprint. You don’t speak quietly, you whisper. You’re not really hungry. You’re famished or starving.
Chris: I just wanna say, I’m personally a huge advocate for conciseness. You know, when I’m doing line editing, it’s just this strikeout tool everywhere.
Wes: (laughs) I completely agree with you, because I find if you eye writing with a focus on concision, you’ll start paying attention to these kinds of modifier compounds. And then that’ll encourage you to say, is there a way to more concisely say that? And that’s a great way to just learn new words.
Chris: Did anybody just notice that I said conciseness, and then Wes said concision?
Wes: ‘Cuz concision’s the word, sorry.
Chris: (laughs) You think conciseness is not a word.
Wes: I mean, it’s your word, Chris. And you can use it. I’m not gonna take that away from you. One other thing that relates to this, is just understanding the meaning of words is important. And these are all things that I would edit in a piece of writing. The word “assemble” is enough. You should not say “assemble together.” The word “begin” is enough. You do not say “first begin.” The word “continue” is enough. You do not need to say “continue on.” You do not need to say “follow after.” You do not need to say “refer back.” You do not need to say “repeat again.” All of those verbs contain that, meaning the adverb is actually doing nothing. So that’s kind of a thing there too, where it’s just trusting in the word to just do its job. When we’re speaking, I think we tend to fill, because we’re trying to let our thoughts catch up to our mouths. And so that happens, but you have more time in writing.
Oren: You also have to deal with people reading your sentence over and over again. Whereas when you speak a sentence, it’s just gone unless you recorded it, (sarcastically) like a not very smart person would do that. One other thing that just—obviously a lot of this is a little over my head, and I’m mostly convinced that spoken language was a mistake. But one thing that the whole adverb thing occurs to me is another issue can be a lack of precision, which can be important in some scenes. Like if you say he stood angrily. Or whatever, right? So angrily could mean a lot of things in that situation. Different people express their anger differently. For some people, getting angry makes they get loud and red-faced. For some, they get very quiet and stiff.
It’s different, and you don’t always need that level of precision, but when you’re dealing with an important scene, you probably do. With important characters, you want that level of precision, because you want the reader to be able to picture what’s happening. Whereas, if you’re using vaguer adverbs, or you’re just like, yeah, this person’s angry, what you’re doing is inviting me to fill in what I think angry means. And in some situations that works, if it’s just a little filler bit or a little bit of transition or whatever, that’s fine. But if it’s a major important scene, I need to be more specific. As the reader, I want the author to do the work of creating the scene. I don’t want to have to put it on myself.
Wes: There’s something about adverbs that are—because they’re so flexible, because they can do so many things, they do lose that specificity. As much as they try to tell you more about what’s going on in that sentence, they can be extra vague because they’re easy to construct. I can make “angrily” easily, because that word is readily accessible in my vocabulary. But what I actually mean, what I might actually wish to convey, maybe it’s on the tip of my tongue, but not quite there. And so, angrily comes to mind. I write it down. So I think you’re right, Oren, precision is a very important thing to consider. So it’s not necessarily that you need to go back and delete all of these things, but you should be going back through your writing, finding your adverbs, and then asking yourself, what am I saying here?
Oren: Right. Just on the question of “why the hate,” and another reason is just that people really crave actionable advice, and saying “delete your adverbs” is actionable advice. It doesn’t make it good advice, but it’s actionable. It has a clear instruction, whereas telling someone “don’t construct awkward sentences” is like, (sarcastically) well, thanks.
Chris: ‘Cuz, jeez, that’s what I was doing wrong this whole time. I was constructing awkward—oh, now that I know that …
Oren: Yeah. That’s not an instruction. That’s a value judgment. So you see this a lot. People give actionable advice, and then everyone jumps on it. Even if it’s not good actionable advice. ‘Cuz you can do it, you know?
Wes: And the nice thing about that kind of actionable advice, and I’ve given similar advice, everything from, “just revise this all into active voice,” or “see what happens if you cut out all your pronouns,” but I think that all that actionable advice should serve as just that; it’s advice. It’s a suggestion, but it’s not a truism. It might make it worse. You need to consider your genre. You need to consider your audience. You need to consider expectations and conventions to a degree.
Chris: Certainly having some general guidelines, “don’t make your sentence more than this many words long.” That’s never always going to be true. It’s inevitably exceptions, but sometimes arbitrary advice like that does help people make judgment calls, and helps them find things that are likely to be suspicious. Maybe I’m trying to make that sentence do too much, if it has that many words in it, maybe it’s a run-on sentence if it has that many words on it. Otherwise I think it’s just the work of evaluating your prose becomes too hard and too subjective, and people need those concrete tools
Wes: And the beauty of that concrete tool—and I think, Chris, you mentioned this earlier in the cast—but I think everybody’s experienced the phenomenon of noticing, right? Once something has been drawn to your attention, it’s hard to not see it. And those concrete tools do serve a good purpose, especially for people looking to hone their craft or starting out. I need one anchor. I need something that I know that I can focus on and practice. And “show, don’t tell” is good advice, but it’s still kind of vague. And if you are giving anybody that advice, you can say, “show don’t tell.” And one of the most common ways people “tell” is that they tend to use more adverbs than necessary. And this is what an adverb is. Go read your own writing and see if they’re really necessary or not.
Chris: “Show, don’t tell” is one of those pieces of advice that is so useful in so many situations. But once again, it’s not absolute, and it can mean so many different things in different situations.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: You could spend years just studying “show, don’t tell.” (laughs) It’s impossible for a new person to really know what that means. And it’s not actionable until you learn tons about it.
Wes: Yeah. Definitely.
Oren: Yeah. And it’s also one of those situations where it’s very easy for people who are more writing-focused to think that a piece of advice is more actionable than it is. For example, telling someone to rewrite this in “active voice,” it’s like, well, that’s great if you know what active voice is and how to make it. Because I edit first draft manuscripts, I have encountered startlingly bad prose that it surprises me because these people, when they write me emails, they’re perfectly coherent, and it’s weird how incoherent their prose can be. And I think the reason for that is just that it’s easy to forget how big the gap can be if you’re not properly trained.
Wes: Yeah, that makes sense. And so really, if you’re someone who likes to give advice around writing, I don’t think you should give advice unless you support that advice with maybe a teaching moment, or some examples, or something like that. Any shorthand is easy to toss around and feel superior, but that’s not helping anybody. And then for the rest of you out there, ‘cuz I know we’re nearing the end of our time, but you don’t have to revise all these things out. There’s perfectly successful books that use plenty of the “-ly” adverbs as they get that rap, and they still read well, so you need to consider the effect, the experience that you want your readers to have. You need to know that there’s power and beauty in cadence, like the flow of sentences and things like that. But also don’t forget that a little goes a long way. And people will notice these things.
Oren: Yeah. A little goes a long way quickly, you might say. (laughs) Okay. So, we are definitely out of time. Before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons, Kathy Ferguson, who teaches political theory in Star Trek, and Ayman Jaber, who writes about fantasy fiction. All right, I’ll talk to you later. If anything we said piqued your interests, you can leave a comment on our website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will see you next week.
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