When and How (Not) to Use Adverbs


Stephen King, a celebrated American fiction writer once said: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." English learners and writers are often advised not to use adverbs in their writing.

In this lesson, we provide a detailed guide and many different examples on what adverbs are, what can be wrong with using them, when you should not use them, and when it is helpful to add adverbs to your writing.

When and How (Not) to Use Adverbs

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Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses


Adverbs are words which modify the meaning of verbs, adjectives, or even other adverbs. They can change or qualify the word they are standing next to. Typically, an adverb will tell us more about the manner, time, place, or degree of something, answering questions such as how or where.

Adverbs usually consist of an adjective + ly (slowly, quickly, beautifully) but they can also contain endings such as –ward or –wise (forward, backward, otherwise) or simply keep the same form as adjectives (hard, fast, right).

Of course, some adverbs are not related to adjectives at all. Common words such as very, too, quite, and so are also adverbs.

When used in a sentence, adverbs are meant to give us more information about the word they are modifying.


For example:

This morning, Sarah ran quickly. (This tells us how fast Sarah ran.)

Are there any shops nearby? (This adverb gives us a sense of a place where there could be shops.)

I came to this office early. (In this case, the adverb helps us answer the question when.)


What Is Wrong with Using
Too Many Adverbs in Writing?

Show or tell?

Writers who use many adverbs are often considered to have weak writing skills because they do not follow the "show, don't tell" writing rule. This means that adverbs carry strong descriptions in themselves and, as such, they prevent the writer from expressing himself/herself clearly throughout the article.

In other words, using adverbs (e.g. angrily, foolishly, tirelessly, etc.) is a quick and easy way to tell how something happened.

In general, it takes more skill to write in such a straightforward, clear, and descriptive way so that the reader can independently understand that something was done foolishly or tirelessly without being told so through adverbs.


For example:

When Mark asked her to marry him, Naomi acted foolishly. => When Mark asked her to marry him, Naomi screamed, ran away, sent him a text message, and then came back and hugged him.


Redundant Adverbs

Adverbs become redundant when they do not provide any new piece of information about the word they are supposed to modify. In other words, they only confirm what the verb already describes.

This usually happens when they follow a strong verb that clearly conveys the matter or degree of the action taking place. In such cases, adverbs serve no purpose in writing and should be omitted.


For example:

She briefly glanced at her mobile phone.

In this case, the verb glance already tells us that the action was brief because it is in the description of the verb (glance means "to take a brief or hurried look"). For this reason, the adverb briefly should not be used.

We slowly and leisurely strolled on the sand.

In this case, too, the verb stroll means walking in a in a slow and relaxed way, without a hurry, so the two adverbs are redundant. There is no other way to stroll, so we do not need to stress that through adverbs.

Other times, the choice of adverbs used in a sentence is wrong because they do not convey any specific meaning at all. These are "empty" and overused adverbs which have no role in the sentence and can be eliminated in writing.


For example:

I am completely exhausted, so I really have to lie down.

The adverb completely does not modify the verb exhaust because it would be hard to imagine anyone who is only "partly" exhausted. In a similar manner, when a person has to lie down, this also shows how urgent the matter is, so it mayb be unnecessary to add really. Saying that someone really has to lie down does not make the need to lie down stronger.

When we rewrite the sentence without these two adverbs, we see that it has not lost its meaning:

I am exhausted, so I have to lie down.


More examples:

I am very sorry that I totally forgot to call you! => I am sorry that I forgot to call you!

When John said he was going to quit his job, he literally meant it. => When John said he was going to quit his job, he meant it.

Andy makes sure everything is very perfect. => Andy makes sure everything is perfect.

It's important to note that sometimes such adverbs do add an important layer of meaning to the sentence:

I paid $500 for the ticket, so I am definitely going to the concert!
Here the adverb "definitely" gives a needed emphasis.


When Should We Use Adverbs?

Although writers are frequently advised not to use adverbs, this is not a "black or white" writing tip. Adverbs can be redundant, but they can also be an important part of the sentences we write. You simply need to make sure they play a role in the sentence and do not act as empty fillers.

Adverbs are one of the four main parts of speech, together with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Each of them has a special purpose. We are able to construct sentences by putting these parts together, so when we omit all adverbs from our writing, we are unable to give important information about not just our verbs, but other adverbs and adjectives as well.

Adverbs are particularly useful if we are dealing with specific word counts. Of course, writers who have hundreds of pages to fill in can explain that someone "acted bravely" without using the adverb "bravely" by elaborating on the event in more detail. However, if you wish to convey a clear meaning and place your sentence in a particular context, adverbs are a useful tool.

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

You missed the train. => Clearly, you missed the train.

By reading the first sentence, we know that somebody missed his/her train. The narrator could be anyone – a ticket officer, a friend, a random passenger.
The second sentence shows a degree of criticism. The adverb clearly, when used in this context, can show some level of scolding or disapproval because the person missed the train. If the writer wishes to convey such a meaning then using adverbs is preferred.


Another example:

Dana is an emotional person. => Dana is an overly emotional person.

In the first sentence, we learn that Dana is emotional, and this can be considered as either a good or a bad quality, depending on the reader. We cannot determine the narrator's opinion about it.

In the second sentence, however, it becomes clear that Dana is emotional to a degree that is considered to be "too much." In such a context, we know that the narrator thinks negatively of it.


Tip: When You Use Adverbs,
Do Not Misplace Them

While it is important to use adverbs sometimes, it is crucial that they are not placed wrongly in a sentence. English learners frequently unintentionally misplace their adverbs. This can completely change the meaning of their sentence. If it is unclear what the adverb is modifying, the sentence can become confusing or be misinterpreted by readers.


For example:

Gareth and Bob only go to the gym on Sundays.

The adverb only is placed next to the verb go which suggests that only modifies this particular verb. In that case, readers learn that Gareth and Bob do one thing on Sundays – they go to the gym. They do not do any other activities.

Yet, this is wrong because it would be impossible to stay in the gym for so long and do nothing else. What the author was trying to say is that Gareth and Jim go to the gym on Sundays and no other days.

We should rewrite the sentence as:

Gareth and Jim go to the gym only on Sundays.

OR

Gareth and Jim go to the gym on Sundays only.


More examples:

Jackie goes to the countryside and visits her grandma rarely.

In this case, what Jackie does rarely is confusing. Readers are not sure if she goes to the countryside rarely or visits her grandma rarely, or both. That is why the sentence should be rewritten depending on what the writer is trying to say.

Jackie rarely goes to the countryside to visit her grandma. (We know that she does not go to the countryside often nor does she visit her grandma often).

OR

Jackie goes to the countryside but rarely visits her grandma. (We know that Jackie visits the countryside frequently but does not visit her grandma often.)


Final Adverb Usage Tips

In conclusion, using adverbs in writing is a sensitive topic. Some are strongly against it, while others like to use them frequently. It would be wrong to never use adverbs just as much as it wrong to use them too much. Adverbs can be used in moderation and when they are necessary, following these writing tips:

  • Know when an adverb is redundant because it has the same meaning as the verb (e.g. sprint quickly => sprint)
  • Remember that some adverbs are almost always unnecessary because they do not tell much (e.g. totally win => win, definitely sure => sure)
  • Use adverbs when they can clarify the meaning of your verb or adjective (e.g. trusting => foolishly trusting)
  • Make sure to not misplace your adverbs because this will make your writing confusing (e.g. I exercise three times a week with Mark usually. => I usually exercise three times a week with Mark. OR I exercise three times a week, usually with Mark.)

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