Let’s Talk About Adjectives & Adverbs

In the process of writing endless grammar posts lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about parts of speech. This in turn has got me thinking about one of the rules of writing:

Don’t use adjectives and adverbs.

Now, I love me some adjectives and adverbs – and in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I also love to push back against prescriptive grammar rules. So I’m obviously going to spend a good chunk of this post disagreeing.

But this rule exists for a reason, as most rules of writing do. And I am nothing if not fair in my habit of presenting the rules before going “but here’s why you don’t necessarily need to follow them.”

So let’s take a look at the logic.

Why Not to Use Adjectives & Adverbs

In general, we’re told not to use adjectives and adverbs because they’re often unnecessary. Think of a writer who writes that a character “smiled happily.” The word “happily” adds no meaning – smiles are understood to be happy (in certain cultures) unless indicated otherwise. We can trim fat by deleting adverbs and adjectives like this.

But what if “happily” is meant as an intensifier? What if the writer is trying to get across that this smile is really, really happy?

This brings us to the other primary reason for this rule – there’s a stronger word for that! Rather than smiling happily, your character beams. Rather than running quickly, your character sprints. Rather than living in a small house, your character lives in a shack or cottage or bungalow or modular or mobile home or–

The point is, there’s often a stronger noun or verb you could be using rather than an adjective/noun or adverb/verb combo. These stronger words not only cut down on your word count and tighten your writing; they also pack more of a punch. They describe and emote more. “Sprinted” has more speed and urgency than “ran quickly.” “Beamed” holds more joy than “smiled happily.” “Shack” tells us more about your character’s living situation than “small house.” And so on.

That said…adjectives and adverbs are part of language! Claiming writers shouldn’t use entire parts of speech is silly and frankly unrealistic. These parts of speech exist and serve important functions in language. Reasons for the “do not use” rule do exist – but when we don’t know or understand the reasons behind it, we overgeneralize and try to get everyone to cut every single adjective and adverb from their writing without reason.

(Or without any reason other than yammering on about how great Hemingway’s ~minimalist style~ is. Personally, I’m not a fan.)

So now that we’ve talked about the reasons behind the rule…let’s talk about when and why you might want to break it.

Why to Use Adjectives & Adverbs

The first and most obvious reason to use adjectives and adverbs is in cases where a stronger verb or noun doesn’t exist. This predominantly applies to adjectives. Consider adjectives of color, number, material, texture, taste. If you’re describing a chair, you can pick a more specific noun to describe what type of chair it is: armchair, stool, rocking chair. But if you want to describe the color or material of the upholstery, for example, you have to reach for an adjective. There is no noun, to my knowledge, that you can substitute for “red velvet armchair.”

Of course, this raises another question: do you need to tell us the armchair is red velvet? Not necessarily, but then again you may, especially if you’re going for particular aesthetic or if the object in question is important to the story.

You may prefer to use figurative language to describe something this important. But presumably you won’t want to draw that much attention to it or slow the story down that much every time you bring it up. Yet you may want to mention it often to keep it fresh in readers’ minds. Adjectives are perfect for that quick reminder!

A second major reason is when the adverb or adjective goes against what is expected. Let’s return to our example of “smiled happily.” Smiling happily is expected. But if your character is smiling bitterly, sadly, tightly, cutting the adverb and simply saying “smiled” isn’t going to get that across.

(Again, you might be able to get this across in another way, such as body language: maybe your character smiles but clenches their fist. But adverbs and adjectives are valid alternatives.)

Third, you might want to use adjectives and adverbs if you have a tendency to overuse the thesaurus. The thesaurus can be helpful for finding stronger verbs and nouns. However, if you don’t have a good understanding of the synonyms, you can end up with meanings you didn’t intend: synonyms are words with similar meanings, but they very rarely mean precisely the same thing as the word you’re already using. Using adjectives and adverbs isn’t a permanent solution for thesaurus overuse, but it can let you say precisely what you mean while you expand your vocabulary and work on learning the connotations of those strong nouns and verbs.

Finally – and the primary reason I reach for adjectives and adverbs – adjectives and adverbs can provide shades of meaning you might not be able to achieve with a stronger noun or verb.

My favorite example of this is “said quietly” or “said softly.” There are synonyms, of course: whispered, murmured, muttered. But none of these words means quite what I want it to.

[Bill Nye voice] Consider the following!

Let’s take a look at an example from The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher. Here’s the original line:

“Hey, Clemmy,” she said softly. “It’s been a long time.”

Here it is with each of our possible synonyms:

“Hey, Clemmy,” she whispered. “It’s been a long time.”

“Hey, Clemmy,” she murmured. “It’s been a long time.”

“Hey, Clemmy,” she muttered. “It’s been a long time.”

Each of these variations probably feels at least a little different to you. They certainly do to me! You can say something softly without whispering; ditto murmuring, especially if you (like me) associate murmuring with more indistinct speech. Muttering has an added layer of irritability or annoyance (or possibly embarrassment). I use “said + adverb” in these situations because this construction catches my intended meaning better than the stronger alternatives.

Basically, as with most of the rules of writing, there’s more nuance to this rule than we normally hear. In general, we should cut adverbs and adjectives where we can: when stronger verbs and nouns exist that capture our precise meaning more concisely. But there are times when we may want to use adverbs and adjectives – when it may actually be better to use adverbs and adjectives – and we don’t have to refuse to use them just because a “rule” says so. They’re valid parts of speech! They exist for a reason! So go forth and use them.

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