Thursday, November 29, 2012

Subtle things #2: Using adverbs correctly

Correctly? Never use adverbs!

In general, yes. Saying "never!" is certainly simpler than trying to explain all the situations where they could be used correctly, if the conditions are right. Plus, English is a great language with tons of specific words and it will let you make stuff up on the fly -- you can cut down on your adverbs just by taking advantage of that. So do that.

But. Adverbs can be used to convey information that doesn't easily go anyplace else. It's a judgement call on the writer's part, so it's difficult to argue about without being either very situation-specific or very macro-level non-specific (as in, "never!"). I'm going to be very situation-specific, to try to illustrate a pattern.

Some of my transgressions in the raw draft of Disciple, Part VI, with adverbs highlighted:
  1. His one short, melancholy letter was tucked safely away at home.
  2. The pavilion cleared quickly; even the steward and the pages left, once they’d cleared the trenchers.
  3. At bow range, Arcea would surely return fire, and my widest shield… “I won’t be able to protect them all,” I had to admit.
  4. The armsman in front skidded in surprise and nearly fell.
  5. I could feel his pulse, faintly.
(Searching for "ly" in my manuscript points out two words I'm guilty of over-using: only, and nearly. That's a whole 'nother post, on quirky habits, though.)
  1. This adverb is 95% redundant. Things that are tucked away can be reasonably assumed to be safe, IMO. Delete.
  2. This one, I would keep. Pavilions can clear slowly, so quickly is carrying important information. Clear is not a terribly specific verb, but I'm summarizing a nonspecific group of actions. What might be more specific? Emptied, but it's also not very specific. Evacuated and deserted have the wrong connotations, and indicate that the pavilion did the action. I could go into more detail about people lingering to chat, or who left right away, but I need to get to the important stuff. Short sentence, adverb, extra detail to specify how empty the pavilion is, keep moving. 
  3. Surely here is... 75% redundant, because the enemy will return fire. There's no question of it. This one is a voice issue, my gut says. I'll probably delete it, but it bears some thought. 
  4. Why not almost fell? Voice. But does this adverb convey important information? Skidded indicates loss of control. It's close to falling already. I could be more specific, here -- did the armsman fall to one knee? Manage to keep his balance? Run into a wall and catch himself on that? I'll have to look at the surrounding sentences to make a final call on this. 
  5. Faintly does bring important information about the patient's health, but what I have to reconsider here is whether the feeling is what's faint or the pulse. And, actually, it's the pulse that's faint. This should be an adjective, not an adverb: I could feel his faint pulse.
So out of five adverbs, I would keep one. Maybe two.

Given those five adverbs, you would probably do something different. That's the nature of these "subtle things" I've been ruminating on. (See Subtle Things #1, explanation's at the bottom.)

And looking at it now, I have to invoke another Subtle Thing: "Arcea would surely return fire." No, they won't, because they're using bows. Fire came mean shoot only after guns were invented and fire got involved in the process (cannons, matchlocks, flintlocks, etc.) Ha! I've been fighting to keep the language period-accurate, but one snuck through. That's a whole 'nother post to do... 


Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I thought the prose in your published book that I read was darn near perfect. I know I use adverbs too much. Oh well.

Liz said...

If adverbs weren't meant to be used, they wouldn't have evolved within our language. However, I agree that they can be overused.

Belgerith said...

At bow range, Arcea will loose a volley, and my widest shield… “I won’t be able to protect them all,” I had to admit.

Might be how I would alter that one to make it period accurate.

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