So what about adverbs and adjectives?

After today, there’s just One! Week! Left! Are you excited? Are you working hard? I’m sure you are. So how about another day or two of stuff about grammar and plot? It may be a bit late to be talking about this now, at least with respect to your current novella or project, and yet this may relate to some degree to your word count and to the word-adding strategies I mentioned last time. And learning these things will always stand you in good stead in your future writing. It’s never a bad thing to understand grammar, so you can make yourself clearly understood when you write. So let’s talk a bit about words that modify or describe the qualities of verbs and nouns.


She didn't merely "run"

She didn’t merely “run”

Before we get to the controversy, let’s clarify some things. First question, then: what is an adverb? The answer is contained in part of its name, “verb.” A verb, as you know, describes an action. She ran. He sang. We sailed. I thought. You loved. I speculated. All of those words—ran, sang, sailed, thought, loved, and speculated—describe actions. They are either actions you perform physically (ran, sang, sailed) or mentally/emotionally (thought, loved, speculated). And don’t forget the other odd sort of verb, the one where you just exist. That is, I am, you are, we are, they are—yep, all those “to be” things are also verbs, even though you’re not “acting,” as such, but are just “being.”

And whatever form the verbs take, adverbs are words that are added to describe how an action is performed. She ran swiftly. He sang badly.  We sailed poorly. I thought hard. You loved deeply. I speculated thoughtfully. Adverbs tend to end in “ly,” but that’s not always the case, as you can see from my example using the word “hard.”

So. Now that we’ve made it clear what adverbs are, you may wonder why a great many grammarians, writers, and editors say that you should never use them. What?? A whole category of parts of speech that should never be an actual part of speaking or writing? What the heck is going on with adverbs?

Full disclosure: I happen to think that adverbs came into existence for a reason and that they can serve a good purpose in the right circumstances. So I simply don’t go along with the “eliminate all adverbs, ever, anyplace, anytime” approach. Yet the people who don’t like adverbs do have something of a point. Using adverbs can be a substitute for good, solid work at writing strong, vivid descriptions of action.

Let’s take an example from my list of verbs and adverb combinations above: She ran swiftly. Now, obviously, the word “swiftly” was added to show that she didn’t just jog along at a moderate, steady pace. No, she really ran in a major way, because she did it “swiftly.” And if you want to emphasize just how swiftly she ran, you might even say, “She ran very swiftly,” and there you’ve added another adverb, where “very” means “to a high degree.” So you’ve pumped up the verb “ran” with two other words, describing just how she did the running.

But the basic problem, and the reason you need these extra words, is that “ran” just isn’t adequate in describing how this woman moved. It is a mild enough word that if you want it to express a stronger type of running, it just can’t do it; it needs “pumping up” with those extra words. But what if you just chose a verb that was strong enough by itself? How about saying “She raced?” Or “She sped?” Both of those verbs are much stronger than “ran,” and they create the needed impression of speed without any boosters.

That’s the basis of the arguments put forward by the “no adverbs at all” crowd: supposedly, you never need adverbs to “pump up” a verb. What you need, they say, is to choose a strong verb that will express exactly the type of action you want to express. Instead of “He sang badly,” you can say, “He quavered” or “He warbled.” Instead of “I thought hard,” perhaps “I pondered.” And maybe I didn’t “speculate thoughtfully;” since “speculation” is already a particular form of thought, maybe I just “speculated.”

Sailboats with oddly colored sails

Sailing–in some fashion or other

But very occasionally, I still think that adverbs might have uses. After all, what sort of verb is there that describes “sailing poorly” in just one word? Are there that many different verbs for sailing, and do some of them embody particular qualities of sailing? Maybe there are, and I just don’t know the nautical world and haven’t come across them. Or maybe, this time, the subjects of the verb simply “sailed poorly,” and there’s no other way to describe it. Or there’s no other way that wouldn’t require a whole sentenceful of other extra words. If the point is to eliminate unnecessary extra words, well, that would kind of defeat the purpose.

But I do agree with the anti-adverb people in saying that you can often—probably usually—get rid of the “booster” adverbs and find a much stronger, more descriptive and lively verb instead. (Remember how that crack “snaked” across the wall, a few posts ago? Now, that was a power verb!)

However. This is NaNoWriMo month, and remember the big goal of this month? WORD COUNT. So for this month—and only for this month, as a very special case—pile on those adverbs, baby! If you are severely short on word count? Adverbs! Every action that your characters take can surely, surely be augmented. (See what I did there? I doubled the adverb “surely!”) So forget the sparse “She raced.” Surely “She ran very swiftly and speedily!” That’s three times the words.

But after the NaNo is over, and you get to editing your story—cut those suckers out! Choose the strong verbs whenever you can. It will ultimately make your story better.


"Toronto" sign at Toronto City Hall

Now, that’s a proper noun!

First, what is an adjective again? It’s a word that modifies a noun. And a noun is an object or a place or a state of being or an idea. (And a proper noun, an important subset of nouns in general, gives the name of something, for example, the names “Barbara” or “Canada” or “Engineering Department.” These nouns are capitalized precisely because they are proper nouns—official names.)

Now that we recall what nouns are, we can go on with adjectives. Being words that modify nouns, they describe the sorts of attributes that the nouns have. An adjective can describe things like the color of an object (e.g., blue or yellow), its weight (e.g., heavy, light, weightless) or width (e.g., wide, broad, widespread), its condition (e.g., rusty, ancient, wooden), or some other inherent quality (e.g., benevolent, enjoyable, detested, delicious, honest). Adjectives can describe the origin of something, so this particular rock might be “lunar,” or that guy over there might be “French,” or that piece of furniture you covet might be “Art Deco.” And adjectives can also describe “how much” of a thing you have: you might have “half” an apple; or you have “much” sugar; or you have “many” books. Or—and this is something people don’t always realize—if you have “ten” fingers,” you’ve got an adjective modifying fingers. Numbers are adjectives too, because they describe a very particular quality (number or amount) of a noun.

Wow. That’s a lot of work being performed by adjectives, isn’t it? So do adjectives suffer the same disregard and disdain that adverbs do in certain quarters? You would certainly cut out a lot of the English language if you couldn’t use adjectives any more than you can use their cousins the adverbs. Are we left with just plain nouns and verbs and little else? That would certainly make the language a little…stark, wouldn’t it?

Circular store rack full of colored shirts

See any puce in there?

Actually, I’m not sure you have that much to worry about, because here I would say you’ve got a lot more leeway. If your character is wearing a green shirt, there’s really no “stronger” word for “shirt” that would include the attribute of greenness along with the fact that the thing is a shirt. If the shirt is green, you pretty much have to say it’s green, or else you give no color adjective and let the reader do the work of imagining in his or her own mind what the color might be. In fact, some writers who feel that even adjectives are used more than they ought to be used might indeed do just that—they might just mention the shirt and let the reader imagine its color. The only time these writers would use the adjective would be if the color of the shirt was important to the story. (For example, say that a character in a story is having a clandestine meeting with a spy, so how would she know which person in that crowded concourse was the spy? Why, he might be wearing a pine green shirt with a red handkerchief in the pocket. Then the color of the shirt would actually be important to the plot.)

But if you’re not into that sort of strict minimalism, then you’re more concerned with which adjectives you should use. The difference here is not merely between a “weak noun plus an adjective” and a “strong noun,” as is the case with “weak verbs plus adverbs” and “strong verbs.” The main difference, really, is just between a weaker adjective and a stronger adjective. So instead of using the ordinary adjective, “green,” which gives so much scope for the color that it doesn’t say anything very specific, you might get more specific, picking a stronger and more explicit adjective, talking instead about a “lime shirt” (but please—no). Or an emerald shirt (oh yes, much better).

And instead of saying “a dark red yellow-tinged shirt,” which sounds like you are really fumbling around in the dark for a description of the right color, you might just use the stronger color adjective, “puce.” If, that is, you (or your potential reader!) have any idea what puce even looks like. (That’s one danger of getting just a wee bit too exotic with your “strong adjectives.”) But of course, during the NaNo exercise (word count, baby!), you might actually prefer to go with the “dark red yellow-tinged shirt” and add the three extra words. You can go with puce later, during your editing.

To summarize all this: In your writing in general, you will want to pick the strongest verbs, because these will bring your story very much to life and will save it from being unpalatably bland. You can use adverbs, but use them sparingly, primarily when your verb absolutely does need amplification or elaboration in some way, but also when there just isn’t a verb that encapsulates the qualities you need it to. (Remember “sailing poorly.”) For adjectives, you’ve got a bit more room to maneuver, because you’re never likely to be able to eliminate them all, unless you want a stark, plain, unadorned black-and-white sort of story. (Except you can’t use “black-and-white” in that kind of story either; sorry.) Even with adjectives, though, there is scope for choosing a “stronger” or more descriptive adjective instead of a “weaker” or too general one.

But that’s all for December 1. It’s November 23 now, and for the next seven days—it’s adverb upon adverb and extra adjectives all the way to fifty thousand words!

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Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing fun

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