The Ardeon Writer's Exercise List

Those "ly" Ending Adverbs
© Erick Emert 2001

Barron's Essentials of English; 4th Edition:

     Adverbs modify verbs and other modifiers.

          He spoke to her quietly. [modifies the verb spoke]
          She sang extremely well. [modifies the adverb well]

No one is suggesting that the use of adverbs in speech or writing is against the rules of the English language. This is NOT the case. So if using "ly" ending adverbs and adjectives doesn't break the rules of usage, what's the big deal? To make the point about as clear as I can - using "ly" ending adverbs is BAD WRITING for fiction writers.

Throughout the years I've been critiquing, this is the most common writing fault I've seen. It's also the fault that, when I point it out, writers will defend to the teeth . The most prolific arguments seem to come from experienced writers who should know better:

"This works best the way it is."
"It was necessary to describe how he spoke."
"I wouldn't change it if I could."
"It fits what I wanted to say."
"There's nothing wrong with this."
"I like the way it sounds."

Why would decent writers go out of their way to support bad writing? One reason is you can find the use of "ly" adverbs in published work:

"No," Sephrenia said sharply. - David Eddings, The Ruby Knight
"The wife helped," Mina said shortly. - C. J. Cherryh, Rider at the Gate
"You have cut open my liver," said the man accusingly. - T.H. White, The Once and Future King
"I'm fine," Anna said automatically. - L. E. Modesiltt, Jr. - The Soprano Sorceress
Suddenly the Librarian felt very alone. - Terry Pratchett - Lords and Ladies

So if some of the best writers use "ly" ending adverbs, what's the beef? The beef is - it's still not good writing. Also, you have to look through many pages to find these examples. If I see one "ly" adverb in a 300 word exercise, I don't mention it. However, the people I signal out for over-use of adverbs often have two, three, even six or seven of them in a 300 word exercise. I've even seen two or three in one paragraph. You won't see the pros doing that. Even bad editors don't let that pass in most cases.

At this point you might be thinking I have an axe to grind concerning this issue. Perhaps, but maybe not. I read an excellent article in Writer's Digest back in '96 on the overuse of "ly" adverbs and adjectives. I don't have the article anymore, but it stood me on end. I checked over my own work and saw it was sprinkled with the little devils. I made up my mind not to allow them in my work anymore.

The article suggested that upon completion of a first draft, one should use the "Edit - Find" feature of your word processors. Then type in "ly," hit "find," and rewrite any sentence that contains an "ly" ending word in it. I found this to be excellent advice. It made my writing stronger, tighter, more powerful, and easier to read.

To show that my concern for this writing fault is neither obsession nor witch hunt, I'd like to quote from a varity of books and articles on improving your writing:


On Writing Well, 5th Edition - William Zinsser

Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly - "blare" connotes loudness. Don't write that someone clenched his teeth tightly - there's no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

So are adjectives and other parts of speech: "effortlessly easy," slightly Spartan," "totally flabbergasted." The beauty of "flabbergasted" is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can't picture someone being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use "effortless." And what is "slightly Spartan"? Perhaps a monk's cell with wall-to-wall carpeting? Don't use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped sadly and the winner grinned widely.


Self Editing For Fiction Writers - Renni Browne and Dave King

Perhaps it's a lack of confidence on the writer's part, perhaps it's simple laziness, or perhaps it's a misguided attempt to break up the monotony of using "said" all the time, but all too many fiction writers tend to pepper their dialogue with -lys.

Which is a good reason to cut virtually every one you write. Ly adverbs almost always catch the author in the act of explaining dialogue - smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself. Again, if your dialogue doesn't need props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even though it isn't.

For a final word on the subject, her's a quote from an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

To tighten his own writing, [Marquez] has eliminated adverbs, which in Spanish all have the ending -mente [the equivalent of -ly] "before Chronicle of a Death Foretold," he says, "there are many. In Chronicle, I think there is one. After that, in Love there are none. In Spanish, the adverb -mente is a very easy solution. But when you want to use -mente and look for another form it [the other form] always is better. It has become so natural to me that I don't even notice anymore."


Limiting Adjectives, Adverbs, etc. - Al Rocheleau

Prose has a bit more time to hover, daydream, linger, mess around. Poetry does not. Since every word in a poem must be an essential one, be careful that you are not adding words that don't really need to be there. This includes the words that modify nouns and verbs - the adjectives and adverbs. While these descriptive word-types can sometimes further color a noun or better define a verb, you'll find as you continue building your craft as a poet that you will tend to use adjectives and, especially, adverbs much less.

So let's look at a few lines and see how they might be condensed:

     Dark and restless, sleepless nights
     turn slowly to the respite of the dawn.

How about:

     Wide-eyed nights plead
     the dawn's respite.

You can write that above alternative in one line of formal pentameter OR in two lines of free verse. Either way, you're now down to the essentials.


Useful Manuscript Preparation - Dr. Myron, Shippensburg University

Minimize words ending in -ly; these are usually weak adverbs. Instead, use specific nouns and verbs.


The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing - Michael Harvey

After verbs adverbs are the part of speech most often abused in college essays. Students, deploying an inert, noun-heavy writing style, recognize that their verbs are often pitifully weak. Thus they tack on adverbs in hopes of adding intensity or precision. But this often falls flat or even backfires.

Here are several examples of adverbs that weaken sentences because they add nothing of value:


       Socrates convincingly explains his position to Crito.


       Socrates explains his position to Crito.


       The play carefully examines the disorder brought by civil war.


       The play examines the disorder brought by civil war.


       Antony plays on the crowd's emotions and successfully obtains their support.


       Antony plays on the crowd's emotions and wins their support.

Note that in the last example, getting rid of the adverb leads the writer to choose a stronger verb.


Words and Phrases to Kill - Tameri Publications

When editing a manuscript, some words deserve to die - not always, but usually. (If you miss the humor of that last sentence, you won't after reading this document.)

When used as modifiers of verbs, adverbs are ambiguous. If "he quickly ran," then just how fast did he run? Adverbs do not answer to what degree or extent, despite what grammarians might say.


Purple Prose: Adjectives and Adverbs - Karin Schroeder

In my early twenties, I began a love affair I still struggle with to this day to put behind me. My partners in crime? Adverbs and adjectives. These culprits lulled me into believing they actually strengthened my writing. Was I in for a rude awakening.

That day came when a critique partner pointed out that I used purple prose. Being a beginning writer, I had no idea what she was talking about. But I soon learned as I began to sneak how-to-write books home.

Weak verb/adverb example:

       Frowning angrily, she moved hurriedly towards him, saying very harshly, "You bastard."

Example rewritten:

       Scowling, she stalked towards him. "You bastard."

See the stronger verbs that replaced the weaker verb/adverb combinations?


Media Writing - Nancy Edmonds Hanson, Minnesota State University

Verbs put the muscle in strong writing. While adjectives and adverbs rapidly become cloying - and are often a hallmark of florid, overwritten prose - verbs add vigor, precision and life.


Description - Monica Wood

Circle your adverbs. Watch for unnecessary, irrelevant or extraneous adverbs (especially the ones that end in "ly"). Examine your adverbs to make sure your aren't forcing them to do the hard work of observation for you. Instead of telling us that the heroine works "tirelessly," tell us about the calluses on her hands or her heavy walk.


Writer's "Cheat Sheets" - Michelle Jerott

After the final draft, edit using the "find" function for the words on the following list: ["ly" adverbs] Next, read the sentence containing the offender, and either correct it or leave it be, depending. They are all valid words, if used in moderation, but are prone to misuse, overuse and abuse.


Show and Tell - Rogenna W. Brewer

*--ly adverbs distract from the action. Eliminate the need for them with action verbs. Instead of: "She went quickly…" try: "She hurried…" or "She bolted…". An action verb creates a picture for the reader. The right action verb creates an exact picture. "Hurried" and "bolted" both imply quickness, but each creates it's own mental image.


Guide To Writing Good Trash - Phil Phantom [edited]

A descriptive action verb needs no adverb. Lazy, shiftless, sloth creatures without spines use simple verbs and then tack on an adverb to make sense - if they bother doing that. Because we are sentient beings with a brain, spinal cord, and opposing thumbs, we have the ability to seek out and find the precise verb that best describes the action.

Now let's talk about those LY adverbs. Take a common adjective and tack on an LY, you got yourself an adverb. LY adverbs waste words and are easy to come up with. Just take a simple verb, a simple modifier, tack on the LY, you got great literature, right? Any pin-headed geek can do that.

Why search for the perfect verb like "sprint," when you can just write "run swiftly"? Why think and work to come up with "castigate" when all you have to do is write "berate harshly?"

Don't take the well-traveled path, the easy trail, the freeway. Slug it out in the trenches, break trails, smash through obstacles, plow through barriers, and bowl over monoliths to accomplish the objective - to communicate in an effective manner.


I tried to give examples from many different fields of writing, some sources well known, some obscure. Just about every decent book or article on writing has something to say about using weak adverbs rather than strong verbs. I think you get the idea by now though. This is something young writers need to learn and established writers need to remember. If your work is sprinkled with "ly" ending adverbs and adjectives, edit those puppies out and tighten your work in the rewrite. Powerful writing calls for powerful word selection. It's a good habit to get into.

But then, as a parting thought, if you're a budding J. K. Rowling and your books are selling faster than dog treats at Westminster's, you don't have to be concerned about this sort of thing, do you?

"Careful not to walk through anyone," said Ron nervously, and they set off around the edge of the dance floor. They passed a group of gloomy nuns, a ragged man wearing chains, and the Fat Friar, a cheerful Hufflepuff ghost, who was talking to a knight with an arrow sticking out of his forehead. Harry wasn't surprised to see that the Bloody Baron, a gaunt, staring Slytherin ghost covered in silver bloodstains, was being given a wide berth by the other ghosts.

"Oh, no," said Hermione, stopping abruptly. "Turn back, turn back, I don't want to talk to Moaning Myrtle -"

"Who?" said Harry as they backtracked quickly.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - by J. K. Rowling


Portions of the above excerpted from the following sources:

Barron's Essentials of English, 4th Edition
by Vincent F. Hopper; Cedric Gale; Ronald C. Foote; Benjamin W. Griffith

Writing Well, 5th Edition
by William Zinsser

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers
by Renni Browne and Dave King

Limiting Adjectives, Adverbs, etc.
by Al Rocheleau

Useful Manuscript Preparation
by Dr. Myron, Shippensburg University

The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing
by Michael Harvey

Words and Phrases to Kill
by Tameri Publications

Purple Prose: Adjectives and Adverbs
by Karin Schroeder

Media Writing
by Nancy Edmonds Hanson, Minnesota State University

by Monica Wood

Writer's "Cheat Sheets"
by Michelle Jerott

Show and Tell
by Rogenna W. Brewer

Guide to Writing Good Trash
by Phil Phantom

Images used with Permission.

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All content and material copyright Erick Emert © 2001.