Grammar Class as a Kid Wrecked Your Writing: Adverbs

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Grammar Class as a Kid Wrecked Your Writing: Adverbs

Last year I got inaugurated into a club I had never planned to be a part of: the quasi-homeschooling mom responsible for her kids’s remote learning. Then, this year, we suddenly had school closures before the teachers had worked through the new remote learning approach with our kids. It’s been a trial by fire. But the fun thing (for me at least) is that I get to walk through grammar lessons with my son, Timo. He’s in third grade. And the more time I spend helping him, the more I think about you, my wonderful writer friend. But why? How do you and my third-grade child connect? Well, a lot of the grammar stuff he is learning right now is the stuff I had to unlearn when I went through editing school. Let me show you what I mean.

This Adverb is WEAK

This is one of the sentences Timo had to rewrite today. The instructions said to circle the adverb and point an arrow from the adverb to the verb it modified.

Sam whispered quietly to his friends.

According to the instructions, you should circle “quietly” and point to “whispered.” Timo got it right because it’s easy to understand that quietly corresponds to whispered. I understand why the use examples like this to teach kids how adverbs work. But what about unteaching this lesson to clarify that adverbs are redundancy when they mean the same thing as the verb? Well, apparently people thought that would be too difficult to do, because now they just tell professional writers (like you) to avoid adverbs altogether. But is that really the solution?

Don’t Delete All Adverbs, Please?

We have adverbs in the English Language because they contribute to understanding. They are also useful for helping the reader to understand nuances of a situation that would be hard to realize without the use of adverbs. So why are people advocating that adverbs be pushed out of writing altogether? Well, because after years of third-grade teachers drilling the idea into the minds of students that creative writing means lots of adverb usage, readers are tired of useless adverbs. Why? Because redundancy is annoying. In editing school, it is one of the first things they teach us to remove from a manuscript. We learn to remove “slowly” from the phrase “trudging slowly” or “tiredly” from the phrase “tiredly yawned.” Those adverbs don’t add any meaning, but that doesn’t mean that adverbs are completely useless.

Completely Useless

Take a look at the previous sentence. Do you see an adverb there? Yes, “completely.” But why is it there? Because, I just admitted to you that useless adverbs exist. Remember? Trudging slowly? But not all adverbs are useless, hence the use of “completely” in “completely useless.” There are instances where adverbs help to clarify exactly what the author means. For example, when someone runs, it’s implied that the act of running creates speed. But what if you’re slow (like me)? And when you run, it’s like watching someone run in slow motion (also like me)? You could change the word “run” to “jogged” or to “rambled,” but you could also use “ran slowly,” to convey something extra that doesn’t convey itself in the word “ran” all by itself.

Just because I can’t leave it, if I was correcting Timo’s original sentence, it would look like this:

Sam whispered to his friends.

But you might be wondering, “How do I know whether an adverb is useless, Kristin?”

It’s simple. Ask yourself this question: does the adverb add meaning to the sentence? If not, it has to go. I don’t care how fancy it makes the sentence sound. You aren’t going for fancy, you’re going for clear. Clarity requires the deletion of redundancy.And if I sound like I’m being a tad harsh about this, it’s only because I’ve had authors respond to the question “Does it add meaning?” with “But it sounds better” so many times, that I’ve lost count. And no, it doesn’t actually sound better (see what I did there?), you just think it sounds better because your inner third-grade self insists that what your grammar teacher told you is true and that adverb use equals creative writing. But you have to unlearn that.

And now that you have, go write something awesome. Happy writing!

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