Beware of adverbs. They can dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it.
The authors of the classic "Tom Swift" adventures for boys loved the exclamation point and the adverb. Consider this brief passage from "Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight":
"Look!" suddenly exclaimed Ned. "There's the agent now! ... I'm going to speak to him!" impulsively declared Ned.
That exclamation point after "Look" should be enough to heat the prose for the young reader, but the author adds "suddenly" and "exclaimed" for good measure. Time and again, the writer uses the adverb, not to change our understanding of the verb, but to intensify it. The silliness of this style led to a form of pun called the "Tom Swiftie," where the adverb conveys the punch line:
"I need some pizza now," he said crustily.
"I'm the Venus de Milo," she said disarmingly.
At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it:
- "The blast completely destroyed the church office."
- "The cheerleader gyrated wildly before the screaming fans."
- "The accident totally severed the boy's arm."
- "The spy peered furtively through the bushes."
Consider the effect of deleting the adverbs:
- The blast destroyed the church office.
- The cheerleader gyrated before the screaming fans.
- The accident severed the boy's arm.
- The spy peered through the bushes.
In each case, the deletion shortens the sentence, sharpens the point, and creates elbow room for the verb.
A half-century after his death, Meyer Berger remains one of great stylists in the history of The New York Times. One of his last columns describes the care received in a Catholic hospital by an old blind violinist:
The staff talked with Sister Mary Fintan, who (in) charge of the hospital. With her consent, they brought the old violin to Room 203. It had not been played for years, but Laurence Stroetz groped for it. His long white fingers stroked it. He tuned it, with some effort, and tightened the old bow. He lifted it to his chin and the lion's mane came down.
The vigor of verbs and the absence of adverbs mark Berger's prose. As the old man plays "Ave Maria…"
Black-clad and white-clad nuns moved lips in silent prayer. They choked up. The long years on the Bowery had not stolen Laurence Stroetz's touch. Blindness made his fingers stumble down to the violin bridge, but they recovered. The music died and the audience pattered applause. The old violinist bowed and his sunken cheeks creased in a smile.
How much better that "the audience pattered applause" than that they "applauded politely."
Excess adverbiage reflects the style of an immature writer, but the masters can stumble as well. John Updike wrote a one-paragraph essay about the beauty of the beer can before the invention of the pop-top. He dreamed of how suds once "foamed eagerly in the exultation of release." As I've read that sentence over the years, I've grown more impatient with "eagerly." It clots the space between a great verb ("foamed") and a great noun ("exultation"), which personify the beer and tell us all we need to know about eagerness.
Adverbs have their place in effective prose. But use them sparingly.
- Look through the newspaper for any word that ends in –ly. If it is an adverb, delete it with your pencil and read the new sentence aloud.
- Do the same for your last three essays, stories, or papers. Circle the adverbs, delete them, and decide if the new sentence is better or worse.
- Read through your adverbs again and mark those that modify the verb or adjective as opposed to those that just intensify it.
- Look for weak verb/adverb combinations that can be revised into strong verbs: "She went quickly down the stairs" can become "She dashed down the stairs."