Adverbs to AvoidBy Erika Suffern
If you were taught to avoid using adverbs in your writing, the title of this piece might be making you nervous. True, in many cases you can eliminate an adverb by choosing a more apt verb—why walk slowly if you can stroll? But I’m not going to tell you to cut adverbs out of your prose entirely. Instead, I’m going to review a particular category of adverbs that you can easily avoid and thereby tighten your prose.
In Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook recommends that writers avoid “intensive” adverbs, such as very, truly, really, actually, and extremely (15–16). These words have an effect opposite to the one intended, in two ways. First, they are so overused that readers skirt past them. Second, intensive adverbs often weaken instead of intensify the words they modify. A “really important meeting” doesn’t sound more consequential than an “important” one, and a person described as “extremely brilliant” would be just as impressive if described as “brilliant.”
When attached to words that are already absolutes, intensive adverbs can create redundancy. A “truly perfect evening” cannot be more flawless than a “perfect” one, and an “entirely complete set” is missing exactly no more items than a “complete set.”
If you’re tempted to use an adverb like very, try replacing the word you’re modifying: instead of very calm, choose serene, tranquil, or hushed. Or delete the intensive adverb and read the resulting sentence. Chances are you won’t miss the added emphasis, which wasn’t adding much.
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Erika Suffern is an associate editor at the MLA. She received a BA from Bard College and an MA from the University of Delaware and has ten years of editorial experience. Before joining the MLA staff in 2016, she was associate director of the Renaissance Society of America and managing editor of its journal, Renaissance Quarterly.
Published 22 March 2017