Learn how and when to use adverbs

We (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar (Ten Speed Press/Random House). Both books are available as ebooks. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.

You need to pack a clear understanding of adverbs in your writer’s toolkit. Don’t use an adverb when a powerful verb can do the job. Bag adverbs completely? They do have their useful purpose, as in “The bobcat crept soundlessly toward the plump rabbit.”

Verbs are the engines that power your sentences. Strong verbs create images in your mind and tighten your writing. In these two sentence pairs, which of the two sentences creates the stronger image?

The couple walked slowly.

The couple strolled. [“strolled” is a strong verb]

Angrily Terry left the room.

Terry stomped from the room. [“stomped” is a strong verb]

This doesn’t mean you’ll never use adverbs again—but treat them like gold, used in the perfect spot. (As for “suddenly,” some writers put that on their forbidden list along with the vague “very,” “little,” and “beautiful.”)

We’ll cover adverb puzzlers here.

An -ly ending can tip you off to adverbs, but not all adverbs end in -ly. Never, however, yet, then, and now are adverbs, too.

Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They tell how, when, where. Easy, right? NOT! Adverbs are tricky beasts.


√ Don’t be fooled by -ly.

An -ly ending often signals an adverb: oddly, wildly, sweetly. But beware—some -ly words are adjectives—curly, friendly, wobbly. Check your dictionary.

√ Double Duty

Some -ly words can be adjectives or adverbs depending on their job in a sentence.

Mai took a leisurely canoe ride. (Leisurely, adjective, describes “ride.”)

Mai paddled leisurely down the river. (Leisurely, adverb, tells how Mai “paddled.”)

√ Don’t use an adjective in place of an adverb.

Adjectives describe nouns or other adjectives.

Right: The dance troupe did tremendously.

Wrong: The dance troupe did tremendous.

Why? The adverb “tremendously” tells how the troupe did.


√ Adverb or Adjective?

Not sure which to use? Call in a sub!

Substitute am, is, are, was, were for the verb in your sentence. If it makes sense, use an adjective. If it doesn’t make sense, use an adverb.

Testing 1-2-3! Try endless (adjective) and endlessly (adverb):

The race seemed endless.

The race was endless.

Both sentences sound right, so you should use the adjective “endless.” In this case, the adjective works because both verbs (seem and the “to be” verb was) are intransitive (read our next blog post for the inside scoop on intransitive). They never take an object.

So adverbs do have a place in your writing. Just don’t  prop up weak verbs with lazy adverbs! Share a sentence where an adverb is doing its job. We also welcome your adverb questions.

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One Response to “Learn how and when to use adverbs”

  1. Manuscripter Says:

    “…treat them like gold …” Great advice. I can’t wait for the post on who/whom.

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