Use Adverbs and Adjectives! (Just Use Them Well)

By John Flynn-York


Stephen King says the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Mark Twain tells you to cut out your adjectives.

Myriad other writers have joined the fray, too, to the point where it’s established wisdom: don’t use adjectives, and really don’t use adverbs, unless you absolutely, utterly, incontrovertibly must. (And even then, you probably shouldn’t.)

But it’s not true.

I was already thinking about this noxious advice when I ran across this lovely anecdote in Slate: “As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: ‘Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)’”

That wise advice comes from no less than C. S. Lewis, and note that he’s not saying “don’t use adjectives,” but rather suggesting that Tynan watch them closely and consider how they function. And if I were feeling charitable, I would say that this, too, is what writers giving other writers advice have in mind when they echo Mark Twain’s famous prescription: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.”

But the rhetoric tends to get overheated. Stephen King falls victim to this. “The adverb is not your friend,” he writes in On Writing. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” William Noble, in a post on Writer’s Digest, advises us: “Frequently, [adjectives and adverbs] are not important, and in a short story, that means they have no business there.”

Fortunately, more sober minds have rebutted these claims. Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguist, tears apart the advice to remove adverbs in a post on Lingua Franca: “What mindless adverb erasure cannot be trusted to do [...] is improve bad or indifferent writing,” he writes. In fact, “all fine writing in English has adverbs.” And, in an eminently reasonable post on Writer’s Digest that discusses the many functions adverbs perform and the many forms they take (they’re not just words that end in -ly), Barbara Baig writes: “Adverbs, like the other content parts of speech, are an essential for every writer’s toolkit; they can do things that the other parts of speech cannot.”

Doubt that? Have a look at any book near you. If it happens to be Raymond Carver, you might have to search a little harder than normal—he famously avoided them (or, perhaps, had them stripped out by his editor, Gordon Lish), giving his prose its characteristic flatness and concision. And even so, Carver used them, sometimes. In most books, though, you’ll find a profusion of adverbs and a good number of adjectives. And that’s just fine.

Adjectives and adverbs are important parts of language. All writers use them; when used well, they are essential to crafting good prose.

By “used well,” I don’t necessarily mean “used sparingly.” That can be one way to use them well; using them in abundance can be another. Consider, as an example of the former, the opening lines of Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in the collection of the same name:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis was a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

This is compact, terse writing, very effective in what it’s doing. But that “sometimes,” there, that’s an adverb. And it’s essential. It gives us a little window into the narrator’s mind: there’s a touch of judgment to it, a sense that the narrator doesn’t always enjoy listening to McGinnis, that McGinnis inserts his opinion even when it’s not relevant or wanted. And this is one of the most important functions of adverbs and adjectives, for fiction writers: they can be used to characterize the narrator.

Here’s richer example, from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered in paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

It's a passage that’s unthinkable without the many adjectives—“old fighting tom” characterizes the cat so well, sets up the rest of the image so perfectly, that it’s indispensable. (In the Carver passage, “cardiologist”—though of course a noun—performs the same specifying function.) And “powerfully” is a nice case of an adverb used thoughtfully. It fits into the characterization of the cat, but it also hints at the narrator’s emotional reaction to the moment, her physical and mental discomfort. (“Things are tamer now; I sleep with the window shut,” Dillard tells us shortly thereafter.)

And finally, a writer famous/notorious for his heightened style, Mr. Herman Melville:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bring up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Not quite the same, without all those adverbs and adjectives.

So, in the spirit C. S. Lewis’ exhortation to keep a strict eye on them, some things to consider with adjectives and adverbs:

—Does the adverb or adjective specify something—e.g., a quality of an object or a person, or a manner in which an action is done—which is important to be specified? That’s probably relevant, useful, crucial even. Think about that “old fighting tom.” How much would that passage lose without knowing this about the cat? Or maybe it’s not important to specify it for story reasons, but instead for color, for texture, for contrast, for style, for tone.

—Does it tell us something about the narrator? Think about Carver’s “sometimes,” Dillard’s “powerfully,” Melville’s “involuntarily pausing,” his “deliberately stepping,” his “methodically knocking.”

—Does it replicate information the read knows or is likely to infer? Might not need it. But maybe you do—be careful what you assume. If Dillard didn’t tell us the window is open, well, that’s a whole different story, bloody paws and all.

—And, finally, maybe it doesn’t do any of these things, or maybe it does most or all of them, but the same thing could be done with a rephrasing of the sentence. “The man was old” instead of “The old man.” “The light was soft” instead of “The light glowed softly.” Is the rhythm of the sentence and the paragraph improved? Or is it worse? One of the best ways to avoid repetitive prose is to move elements around.

So, writers: use adjectives and adverbs all you want. Just use them well.