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Question

Dear Mitch

"I've been enjoying your tips and advice for students concerned with their college application essay..." our most recently posted question began. It was sent to us from Barry W., in Atlanta, Georgia.

The letter then went on to request a short bit of advice (shorter than usual, anyway) that his teenage children could actually make it all the way through. Well, my advice was short: Go through your essay and ELIMINATE the ADVERBS!

And since it is a piece of advice which I have found surprises students and their parents, and is sometimes described as controversial, I went on to give a longer-than usual commentary and explanation with examples. In fact, I found it had to be broken into two parts, and here now is the completion.

Answer

Part II of yesterday's response:

To review the basic notion, I believe that adverbs, even just a few, can quickly reduce the impact and overall quality of a piece of writing. It typically is the sign of a lazy, unskilled, and/or untalented writer.

Why? Because it tells the reader that you did not take the time and energy to find the right verb, and so you used whatever verb was hanging around in your head and then tried to adjust it with an adverb or two.

Here is an example sentence written with an adverb and then written with a different verb that does not seem to need help from an adverb. See which style you think is more effective:

1a.) Jon ran quickly to the window.           1b.) Jon darted to the window.

2a.) Martha got up urgently from the sofa. 2b.) Martha popped up from the sofa.

So, how do you spot the adjverbs when you are reading your essay? Most will end with 'ly', though not all.

Also, technically, an adjective that describes another adjective becomes an adverb. Example: He was very tall. The word 'very' preceding the adjective tall is an adverb.

REMOVE ALL ADVERBS ALWAYS?

No, there are times to use adverbs to move your piece along, or because it is the right word for that particular place, and if you read what I have written above, or any other piece OF mine, you will have no trouble finding adverbs. But when you can, without over-complicating the structure of a sentence or piece, try to eliminate as many as possible. You will miss them for a few minutes, but then I promise you that you would not let them back in.

By the way, I am not the only person who feels this way, and I am not the only reader/writer who has felt this way in the past.

Ever hear of a man who was named 'Mark Twain'? (He was born 'Samuel Clemens' but is better known as 'Mark Twain'.  He wrote Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer, and is considered a 'Great American Writer'?) Well, about adverbs, in his usual whimsical style, he had this to say:

"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--the confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't.- "

-- Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

 

And in modern times, bestselling author Stephen King wrote this:

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

                       -- Stephen King

US horror novelist & screenwriter (1947 - )

Hope this helps,

Mitch