Adverbs are a misunderstood part of speech. Linguists and authors alike have accused adverbs of being “evil” and “monsters.” However, like any other part of speech, adverbs are an essential part of the English language. This post will teach you what adverbs are, when to use them and when not to, and why they are often hated.
What Is an Adverb?
Adverbs are words that modify verbs. You can remember this because they add something to a verb—as in, adverb! Let me show you some examples of adverbs in sentences. I will highlight the adverbs in orange and the verbs in green.
I quickly ran to the bank.
In this sentence, the adverb “quickly” modifies the verb “ran,” telling the reader the speed at which I ran.
Here’s another sentence:
The dog playfully chased the ball.
In this sentence, the adverb “playfully” modifies the verb “chased,” telling the reader the manner in which the dog chased the ball.
Here’s one more:
The musician passionately played the violin.
In this sentence, the adverb “passionately” modifies the verb “played,” telling the reader the manner in which the musician played his instrument.
As you can see from the above examples, adverbs often end in –ly (quickly, playfully, passionately). But they don’t always!
In fact, in my previous sentences, the words “often” and “always” are both examples of adverbs that don’t end in –ly. In this case, I used “often” to modify the verb “end” and “always” to modify the verb “don’t.”
Adverbs Also Modify Adjectives and Other Adverbs
At this point you might think you know the answer to the question, “what is an adverb?”
But, here’s a tricky thing about adverbs. Not only do they work to modify verbs, but they also work to modify adjectives and other adverbs. (Note that they don’t modify nouns—that’s the job of an adjective.)
Let me show you some examples of how an adverb can modify an adjective. In these examples, I will highlight the adverb in orange and the adjective in purple.
The softly rounded slope of the mountain was beautiful.
In this sentence, the adverb “softly” modifies the adjective “rounded.” The mountain slope isn’t just rounded—it is softly rounded.
Here’s another one:
The hugely expansive cityscape overwhelmed me.
In this sentence, the adverb “hugely” modifies the adjective “expansive.” The cityscape isn’t just expansive—it is hugely so!
As you can see, the function of the adverb is to add even more information about the adjective.
Now let me show you some examples of how an adverb can modify another adverb. In these examples, I’ll pile adverbs upon adverbs!
Lucien filled out the application noticeably quickly.
In this example, the adverb “noticeably” modifies the adverb “quickly.” It tells us that Lucien filled out the application more quickly than is usual.
Here’s another one:
My cat jumped on the refrigerator uncharacteristically bravely.
In this example, the adverb “uncharacteristically” modifies the adverb “bravely.” It tells us that the cat isn’t usually this brave.
What Are Adverbs Good For?
So, what is an adverb and what is it good for?
Adverbs add information about a verb, adjective, or adverb in relation to time, place, manner, and degree.
But what does this mean? Basically, this means adverbs give your writing context so that the reader can clearly understand your message.
Here’s a table that breaks the functions of adverbs down for you:
Are Adverbs “Evil”?
I recently ran across a forum question asking, “Why are adverbs considered to be evil?”
But then I realized that this question didn’t come out of nowhere. Writers and linguists everywhere have maligned adverbs.
However, not using adverbs in your sentences is similar to going on a diet where you cut out an entire food group, such as carbs. The truth is, just as you need carbs to produce proper fuel for your body, you need adverbs to accurately convey a message.
You can’t simply cut out all adverbs from your writing and expect to be a better writer. In the end, cutting out all adverbs will make you an inaccurate writer.
Yet, just as you shouldn’t eat a diet laden with heaping bowls of pasta and hefty servings of bread and crackers, you should use adverbs carefully and with purpose.
It is when you pile on adverb after adverb that your writing will truly suffer the fate of your pasta-bloated waistline.
How to Decide Whether to Keep or Cut an Adverb
So, if adverbs aren’t evil, why have writers and linguists shunned them? The truth is that adverbs can sometimes be unnecessary and replaceable. When deciding whether to keep or cut an adverb, you should ask yourself three questions.
1. Can I exchange the verb-adverb combination with a more specific verb?
A meticulous writer will regard adverbs with a touch of suspicion. Sometimes a better word choice can be found that isn’t so cumbersome.
Consider this sentence: “I quickly ran to the door.”
Perhaps you can exchange the verb-adverb combination “quickly ran” with a more specific verb.
What about “sprinted”?
Our sentence is now slimmed down and adverb-free: “I sprinted to the door.”
2. Does my writing have enough context to make the adverb unnecessary?
Consider this sentence: “She carefully lifted the curtain.”
If we remove the adverb, “carefully,” the sentence becomes: “She lifted the curtain.”
This removes the intended meaning. We want to convey to the reader that “she” was careful about opening the curtain.
One way around this would be to include important, adverb-free context that implies the same thing.
Here’s a revision: “She lifted the curtain and peeked out the window, not wanting to be seen.”
In this revision, we’ve given the reader enough context and shown that the act was careful without outright stating “carefully.”
3. Can I delete the adverb without changing the meaning of my sentence?
Let’s revisit the same sentence as before: “I quickly ran to the door.”
Do we really need to write “quickly”? Doesn’t the verb “to run” already imply speed?
For this reason, we might settle on writing this sentence: “I ran to the door.”
The meaning of the sentence is clear without the adverb. In this sentence, the adverb is unnecessary and leads to a sticky sentence.
However, some adverbs are absolutely essential to the meaning of a sentence.
For example, “I was almost accepted into law school.”
If we took out the adverb “almost,” then the sentence would read, “I was accepted into law school.” The meaning of the sentence is completely changed without the adverb.
Remember, adverbs aren’t evil, they’re not monsters, and you certainly won’t go to hell for using them. They’re simply another part of speech. When used properly, adverbs are an essential part of clear and articulate writing. If you want to be a good writer, it’s important to know when to use adverbs and when not to.