Getting Squatters Out of Your Sentences

After “commas any time you pause” and “your thesis has no stakes,” this is the piece of writing wisdom I distribute most often to my students: adverbs are not your friends.  During this past week, as I’ve been helping seniors revise college essays in the Writing Lab at my Esteemed Place of Employment, I’ve been doling it out on the regular: adverbs are not your friends.

It’s not just you, though.  Adverbs aren’t anyone’s friends.  Adverbs are rather like pushy too-familiar neighbors who, if you let them get the idea that you are friends, will invite themselves to your parties and park their cars in your front yard and drop off unsolicited and unidentifiable casseroles at your door.  It’s fine to say hello to them once in a while, but don’t ever let them get the idea that you’re friends.

Pictured: Adverb. Probably a secret servant of Satan.

Or, as Stephen King put it in his memoir On Writing, “[adverbs] are like dandelions.  If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique.  If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, entirely, and profligately covered with dandelions.”

So what do King and I, not to mention Oliver Strunk of Strunk and White, have against the adverb, and why is it so important to teach our students to hold it at arm’s length?

The adverb, for those of you who have been away from grammar class for a while, modifies any part of speech other than a noun.  It can describe a verb (“she walked briskly“), an adjective (“he looked strikingly handsome”), or another adverb (“she hit the target almost every time”). It gives a reader information about time, place, manner, or extent. The adverb can be quite the useful little word, and your nosy neighbor might be fun at parties once in a blue moon.  The problem, you might guess, comes from overuse of and overreliance on the adverb. As King indicates in the dandelion metaphor, too many adverbs can take over your writing and send it flying off the rails.

A beginning or developing writing student, however, doesn’t always realize when she’s let adverbs take over her sentence, because she lacks the skill and confidence to be her own editor.  We have to teach it to her. So when we practice sentence-level editing, I ask my students to look at each word in a sentence and ask themselves: is this word doing any work?

Every word in your sentence must be doing work (and the bulk of that work should be done by strong nouns and verbs).  The work of words is to create meaning.  A well-chosen word adds clarity and elegance to your sentence.  A poorly-chosen word simply loiters in your sentence, an unwelcome squatter, taking up space that was never its to occupy.  A very poorly-chosen word can detract meaning from your sentence, dragging the rest of the words down into the murky swamp formerly known as your writing.

Consider this example sentence:

She went to dinner with him every Friday; occasionally, she enjoyed it.

This sentence contains two adverbs, “every” and “occasionally.”  Both of those adverbs are doing work. They create a contrast that clarifies for the reader the relationship for these two characters, and add tension to the atmosphere by subverting our expectations about two people who go on a weekly dinner date.  If you took the adverbs out, the meaning of the sentence would change for the worse. They’re doing their job. They belong.

Now consider this sentence:

The reactor explosion at Chernobyl was an extremely devastating nuclear disaster.

“Extremely” devastating, you say?  As opposed to…slightly devastating?  Moderately devastating? There’s only one adverb in this sentence, as opposed to the two in the previous example, but this adverb is a cancerous tumor.  Not only is it doing no work (you could eliminate it and the meaning wouldn’t suffer at all), it cheapens the word devastating by modifying away the power it ought to have.  Unnecessary adverbs make communication harder by destroying the nuance that already exists in our words.

Next time you write anything, or have your students write something, observe and consider: is every word doing work?  If it’s not, you can easily and confidently and unhesitantly and happily oh just get rid of the silly thing.

If you’d like some practice, take a gander at this squatter-laden paragraph and try to edit out the freeloading words:

The very first time I had to speak publicly in front of a crowd, I felt so incredibly nervous I thought I might just throw up.  I had always absolutely hated being called on in class; sometimes, I would duck way down in my seat so that the teacher wouldn’t suddenly remember that I was right there.  But now I had finally become the captain of the soccer team, and I had to stand confidently in front of all my classmates at our Friday assembly and loudly announce the time and date of the upcoming first home soccer match.  Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal – it was just a simple announcement, nothing else – but I never even wanted to say very much at the lunch table, only surrounded by all my good friends. I had written up a computer slide so that all the words I wanted to say would be perfectly laid out in front of me, but I was still extremely scared to think of all those eyes staring intently at me.

Share your edited versions in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Getting Squatters Out of Your Sentences

  1. Hi Dr. Albert! Could you say a little about how this advice might change or not change with register? The sample paragraph here is written in a rather informal register, and it seems to me that that is driving some (certainly not all) of the unnecessary adverb use. For example, the phrase “I thought I might just throw up” doesn’t need the word “just,” but I feel like it does some work to accentuate the informality.
    Maybe the answer is that if an adverb is doing work to create a register or tone, then it’s doing work and so should remain?


    1. Hi Colin!

      I would say that if you are writing a story and one of your characters has an established clumsy, roundabout way of speaking, the excess adverbs in the sample paragraph could be an effective characterization choice.

      However, if you the writer are *narrating* the story, it’s better to make choices that lend themselves to clarity and elegance. If you want to create a conversational register, you could improve that sentence AND its tone by changing the verb: “I thought I might hurl,” “I thought I might barf,” “I thought I might puke my guts out,” etc. In each of these cases, the verb does the tonal work that the unnecessary adverb was doing, plus it strengthens the image!

      Adverbs can do important jobs when we need to write about time, place, manner, and extent, but it’s usually (not always – as in this example here) best to have them stick to those jobs. Nouns and verbs are more versatile and can do the other jobs better most of the time.

      Thanks for your excellent question!
      Dr. A


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