Wily Adverbs

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Adverbs are tricky little creatures.

I have had and continue to have a difficult relationship with them. On one hand, they’re an integral part of our language—we use them in speech all the time, and no one thinks the less of us for it—and yet on the other hand, nearly every book on writing tells us to avoid them whenever possible.

Adverbs can certainly (see, there’s one!) lead to lazy writing. He ran quickly, is in most circumstances a weaker sentence than He sprinted, or He dashed, or some variation thereof. And if not watched, adverbs can proliferate at an alarming rate, creeping into your sentences and adulterating your meaning. A lot of the time they end up being weasel words used to prop up bland or incorrect verbs.

A classic example is the dialogue modifier. “I hate you!” she shouted, is far stronger than “I hate you!” she shouted loudly. Of course, it would be better to drop the she shouted altogether, assuming context allows for it, since the exclamation point conveys the feeling of a shout on its own, and there are some authors who would argue for getting rid of the exclamation point as well, although I feel that would be excessive.

And yet . . . And yet. . . .

Adverbs can add meaning and subtlety to your writing. He ran down the hill, quickly and with grace, tells us things we wouldn’t know if you just wrote: He ran down the hill. Or even if you wrote: He ran quickly down the hill. And there’s a difference between that and: He quickly ran down the hill. Each variation has a different feel, a different style.

Most great writers have used adverbs to a greater or lesser degree. Only a few have shunned them altogether (Gabriel García Márquez is one such example). Just look at this sentence, one of my favorite of all time, from The Dead, by James Joyce:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Take out the adverbs and we have:

His soul swooned as he heard the snow falling through the universe and falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Just not the same, is it? Of course, there’s only one James Joyce, but even so, it shows how much adverbs can add to your writing, if deployed with care.

When writing Eragon, I used adverbs without thinking, scattering them about with abandon and never worrying if there were too many or too few, only trying to find the right word at the right moment. Later on, with a better understanding of the craft, I became excruciatingly self-aware of adverbs, to the point of completely avoiding them for the latter half of Eldest. My discipline wavered, though, as I gained more experience and began to see how adverbs could enrich prose. When one has to add an entire phrase to a sentence in order to avoid a single adverb . . . it might be better just to use the adverb.

Nowadays I take a balanced approach to adverbs. They go in when it seems appropriate and, as long as they read well, I don’t worry about committing some horrible crime of language that’ll bring the grammar police to my door. That said, it’s important to keep their numbers at a reasonable level; it wouldn’t do to have every sentence filled with them.

Although moderation is rarely fashionable, my advice would be to neither shun nor embrace adverbs. They’re an important part of our language, and only kill-joy martinets would deprive writers (and readers) of their pleasures. I just recommend that when you use them, you do so consciously.

Christopher Paolini

About Christopher Paolini

Christopher Paolini is the author of the international bestsellers Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance, along with Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia. He resides in Paradise Valley, Montana, USA.