The Breakdown on Adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs, other adjectives, clauses, and other adverbs (yes, I know that can be confusing). They provide important information, like where, when, why, how, how often, how much, or to what degree. And, when used correctly, they can add a bit of spice to your writing.

Most people recognize adverbs as -ly words:

“She carefully held the dragon egg.” (Adverb with verb)

“The flying lesson was extremely difficult.” (Adverb with adjective)

“He can say his spells remarkably quickly.” (Adverb with adverb)

However, some writers confuse adverbs with adjectives. I’ve seen this a lot with these pairings: bad vs. badly, real vs. really, and good vs. well. Sometimes it’s a case of simply using the wrong word altogether.

Incorrect: “She plays the theremin good.”

In this case, good is an adjective, so it can’t modify plays.

Correct: “She plays the theremin well.”

Other times, using an adjective instead of an adverb can change the meaning of the sentence.

Adjective: “Buckbeak smelled bad.”

Since bad is an adjective, it modifies Buckbeak. So, this sentence is saying that Buckbeak is smelly.

Adverb: “Buckbeak smelled badly.”

As an adverb, badly modifies smelled. This sentence is saying that Buckbeak has a weak sense of smell. (But, of course, we all know that Buckbeak is a good hippogriff who always cleans his feathers.)

Lastly, I use a “less is more” mentality with adverbs. I find that too many can become cumbersome and make sentences difficult to read.

I especially use this rule with very when it’s used as an adverb. Whenever you use very, consider whether you could replace it with a better verb. For example, whisper, murmur, sigh, and mutter are all much more descriptive than very quietly. By choosing one of them, I’m using the best word as opposed to two just okay words.

So, here’s a quick exercise for you: The next time you finish a scene or a chapter, do a search for very in your document. If it comes up, see if you can find a better word with which to replace it.

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