Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Dreaded "ly" word

by Alice Valdal

       No, I don't mean verily, verily, I'm rather fond of that archaic positive, I mean the dreaded adverb, that sneaky thief, that saps strength and power from our writing.  
      Strunk and White,  says to dress up words by adding ly, is like "putting a hat on a horse."  Alice Orr in No More Rejections, warns that adverbs tend to be "flabby and overwritten."   William Zinsser claims "most adverbs are unnecessary."  Others caution that adverbs used in excess burden the writing and slow the action.  Adverbs get in the way of "show don't tell" since most adverbs fall into the telling catagory. "Walked quickly" can be replaced with "strode" to conjure up a strong image.  "Said sadly," can be replaced with "moaned" or "sobbed."  I have a friend who determined to eliminate this pitfall in her writing and devised a template to highlight all her ly words in red.  When I offered up a page of my prose to her process, it came up looking like a bad case of the measles.  I decided not to build my own template.
     Since I have all these exhortations from experts and friends alike, why do  I still find adverbs sprinkled like weed seed throughout my manuscripts?  Am I really a "lazy writer" as Mark Twain proclaimed?   No, I say, defensively.  The adverb is a perfectly acceptable part of speech and merely suffers from bad press.
      Then I had a revelation.  I was listening to a television program with descriptive video for the visually impaired.  Adverbs, ridiculous, unnecessary, flabby and annoying dripped off the announcer's tongue.  While the screen showed a woman wringing her hands, the voice over said "a woman wrings her hands worriedly."  Doesn't hand wringing denote worry?  My ears perked up and I lost all track of the story line as I honed in on the descriptor.  "Menacingly pointed a gun."  Can one point a gun and NOT be a menace?  "Jauntily strode."  Doesn't stride imply a jauntiness?  "Suddenly veer." "Slightly ajar" "purse lips pensively."  The unnecessary modifiers piled up, formed a teetering pyramid, then crashed to the ground as I burst into giggles.
    Oh dear.  Please don't tell me that all my adverbs, designed to intensify feeling, clarify description and enliven setting, annoy the reader, then make her snicker at best or, at worst, toss the book away and tell all her friends not to buy it.
   I believe in this age when we all look for ways to enhance the superlative in our conversation this manner of speech has taken root in our brains and we're simply not aware of how pervasive and ridiculous the phrases are.  "Totally awesome."  Can one be awesome by halves?  "Purely innocent."  Duh!  Or the sports caster's favourite, "Give a hundred and ten percent."  Then there are those old standbys to fill in a pause, basically, usually, firstly. . .
  Ah!  The power of words.  They can sway a nation, bring down a tyrant, move the heart and quicken the mind.  Let us be mindful of this power and our responsibility to use it wisely.   To begin, I've started a list of the worst offenders in my own writing.  Here's a sample "Awesome power."  Hugely magnificent." (Ouch!) "eternally timeless." "Fierce scowl."  Go ahead and giggle.  I deserve it.  I'll try to eliminate these bombs from my prose, but if I ever find an excuse to use "verily, verily," it's in there!
    What about you?  What words are on your to-be-avoided list?  Any hints for how to weed them out?  Can anyone of you read a page of your own writing and find zero adverbs?

Alice Valdal


  1. A critique partner once said I must put myself on an 'ly fast. I did, but they do tend to still sneak in. But really, the less we use them and strive for that strong noun or verb, the better our prose. Thanks Alice.

  2. Alas, this pesky part of speech keeps creeping in when least expected!

  3. I agree. Note no adverbs.
    As a manuscript assessor for several years this was one of the things I stressed repeatedly.(Sorry,that one is needed)