The Curse of Adverbs

In his 1999 book On Writing Stephen King wrote: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ In doing so, King continued a long tradition of writers disdaining adverbs. If you came here expecting to be told its all nonsense and you can use whatever words you like, I’m afraid we’re going to disappoint you. Here’s the thing about adverbs …

Syntax and language

What people fail to understand about writing is how different it is to spoken language. Our brains are not designed to understand squiggles on a page – they’re designed to understand sounds and body language. The squiggles on the page are a representation of that language, like a code.

A code must be simple, transparent, and easy to understand. To coin a metaphor: you can consider written language to be a window, and your meaning to be what’s on the other side of it. The busier you make your window, the harder it is to work out what’s going on inside.

Here’s an amusing example from the old BBC show Yes Minister, to illustrate this.

The point being, the more useless words that don’t mean anything in a sentence, the harder it is to understand what the sentence means. And here we return to that classic of writer’s pet hates, and most useless of all words: the adverb.

What’s so wrong with adverbs then?

The problem with adverbs is they don’t mean much. ‘Quickly’ has no inherent meaning of its own – it needs to be coupled with a verb to have any meaning. ‘She walked quickly’ makes sense.

The problem with that, is why would any writer in their right mind say ‘he walked quickly’ when you can say ‘She rushed,’ or ‘she hurried’, or ‘she dashed’ or any range of fantastic synonyms the English language has bestowed on us, all of which are more interesting, more direct, and more descriptive than the original?

Adverbs can be replaced in most cases by verbs with more specific semantics. It tightens up the language, gets rid of all the unnecessary window dressing, and lets the meaning shine through.

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Matt Rooke About the author
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