WWN6: Adverbs Actually

In last week’s edition of The Write Way, I fired out thirty-two writing rules, in celebration of turning thirty-two.

I mentioned then that each could be its own full issue, and lo, here we are, expanding on rule #4: reduce adverbs.

Let me remind you what we covered last week, and then we will expand…

4. Reduce adverbs

Reduce, do not eliminate.

I’m going to send out a full issue of the Write Way on adverbs soon because boy do people get this one wrong. But the brief summary is this:

There are different types of adverbs. Specifically, lying adverbs, lazy adverbs, rhythmic adverbs, required adverbs and right adverbs. We’ll break it down when I write that issue in the next few weeks.

Some should be eliminated, some used sparingly, and others embraced.

For now, just think about the lazy adverbs that writers use because they don’t want to work on their vocabulary.

"She was very fat" instead of "She was obese"

"The cat was really ugly" instead of "The cat was hideous"

"It was quite good" instead of "It was decent"

Dig a little deeper, learn a better vocabulary and you'll find yourself not needing to use these lazy words.

James Carran, The Write Way Newsletter Issue #5

If you missed that edition you can catch up here: https://www.getpaidwrite.com/p/32-rules

So without further ado,

Adverbs, Actually

It's popular (and effective) to hate on "adverbs".

I've done it myself plenty of times. Mea culpa.

But there's much more to it than you would think from the social media tirades. In this issue of the Write Way we’re breaking all that nonsense apart and replacing it with nuance.

The first and most important thing that we need to realise is that the category of “adverbs” is so broad as to be meaningless.

What do I mean?

Well the word “Actually”, as in “he actually likes adverbs” is an adverb.


The word “yesterday”, as in “he started using adverbs yesterday” is also an adverb.

So, any “rule” that tries to encompass both of those in one definition is not fit for purpose. Instead, we need to dive a bit deeper. We need to understand what the broad categories of adverb are and how to use them (or even if we should at all).

There are four main categories of adverbs, although we could probably split it out a lot more if we wanted. And yes, I the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that I said five types last week. But as I was writing this issue of the Write Way, I realised that two of them overlapped a lot so I combined them.

So our first category is the lying adverb.

Category one: Lying Adverbs

These are what Joshua Lisec calls "badverbs". The adverbs that politicians and journalists love to use.

You’ll see these in phrase like:

"The president literally said..."

"Elon Musk is actually..."

"This position is truly..."

As soon as you see one of those weaselverbs, you know that the writer (or speaker) is lying.

So, for example, say President Donald Trump said "I hate women".

As in, the literal words that came out of his mouth were “I hate women”. What with journalists not being the friendliest towards said President, you can bet that the headlines the very next day would be blaring:

"President Trump said ‘I hate women’"

And quite rightly, it would be a major piece of news. But say instead that Trump just said something a feminist dislikes, like, well you can come up with your own example or else some journo will be posting about James Carran saying that he hates women…

But in that case, the headline would ready:

"The president literally just said I hate women."

That literally there is a lying adverb. It’s a way of getting round the fact that there is no fire beneath this smoke. It’s giving the impression someone said something without them having said it at all.

None of this being a comment either way on Donald Trump vis a vis his feelings toward women, it’s just an obvious example.

If you want real world examples, we could multiply them just by searching on Joshua Lisec’s timeline…

Mara Gay, speaking about Claudine Gay resigning over plagiarism:

This is really an attack on academic freedom ... This is an attack on diversity. This is an attack on multiculturalism

Matthew Yglesias on Elon Musk:

Just keep in mind that whatever Musk is tweeting about on any given day, his goal is to get Donald Trump elected so he’ll cut his taxes & endanger your Medicare and Social Security benefits — something he’s too smart to actually talk about in public.

Business Insider on grade inflation at Yale:

"Yale’s Grade Inflation is a Good Thing, Actually. It makes college less stressful and makes our interest in classes more authentic.”

There are plenty more.

I recommend you go follow Joshua Lisec on X-Twitter by the way. Your eyes will be opened…

Lazy Adverbs

If lying adverbs are the ones that Lisec tweets about, lazy adverbs are the ones I’ve most often got my sights on.

What are lazy adverbs?

They’re the adverbs that lazy writers use when they don't want to learn the right words. I touched on these already last week:

"She was very fat" instead of "She was obese"

"The cat was really ugly" instead of "The cat was hideous"

"It was quite good" instead of "It was decent"

Dig a little deeper, learn a better vocabulary and you'll find yourself not needing to use these lazy words.

James Carran, Write Way Newsletter Issue #5

Like I said last week, you are a writer. Words are your weapons, and you can’t wield a weapon you don’t have to hand. Build your armoury.

Find new words to use. New phrases.

You might never use all those new words, but knowing them gives you the option and sharpens your thinking. And the best way to improve your vocabulary is through books, so here goes:

  1. The Dictionary. I am not kidding. Read it. As author Doug Wilson quipped “the plot will often fail to grip” but do it anyway. Read a page a day. Even better, read a page a day and pick one word to use in your writing for that day…

  2. Etymological dictionaries. These are invaluable for tracing the history of a word, and stumbling across new ones as you go. Start with Mark Forsyth’s “The Etymologicon”, then get a proper etymological dictionary like The Oxford Book of Word Histories.

  3. Slang, defunct and dialect dictionaries. Slang and dialect are a rich treasure trove of pithy phrases and precise choices. Defunct dictionaries of old words that are no longer in use are also great. “The Horologicon” by Mark Forsyth is somewhere to start.

  4. Thesauruses. Roget’s is probably the best. I have Roget, Oxford, and Merriam Webster a pace away from my desk at all times. But beware. Do not use a work just because the thesaurus had it. The thesaurus is there to make you think “Oh that was the one I was looking for”.

  5. Norman Lewis’ Word Power Made Easy and 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. Two recommendations on my shelves from my friend Jim Clair.

Everyone online always recommends losethevery dot com. That’s dumb.


Because a long list of AI-alternatives does you no good if you don’t understand the nuance of the word, or what you’re trying to say. Swapping one lazy option for another is not going to help.

Take the time to find the right word.

Now if those are the “L” adverbs, what are the types of adverb that are “actually” good for your writing?

I break ‘em into two types:

Required Adverbs

These are the adverbs you need.

And yet, bizarrely, nobody is talking about them.

The truth is that there are adverbs that are required for good English. Most commonly, they’re the true adverbs. You know, the ones that actually modify verbs…

Especially when they’re tone or time related.

So phrases like: "he said, sarcastically" or "She added, cheerfully" are tone related adverbs.

Those are hard to replace without adding a LOT of words. Sometimes, because this is nuance city we’re visiting here, that’s the right choice. Sometimes you want to show as much as possible, and avoid “telling” the tone by saying “cheerfully”. Perhaps her button-bright smile shows the cheerfulness of the tone.

Perhaps not. Perhaps you need the reminder of the tone in there to keep the reader on track. Or perhaps sarcasm is tricky to convey visually. Or perhaps you just don’t want to add fifteen words of facial expressions every time someone is being cheerful.

You’re the writer, you make the call.

We could multiply examples.

"He brought both guns to bear simultaneously" might well be more efficient than "He brought both guns to bear at the same time". And it’s another place to consider tone and rhythm.

Or consider the true adverbs of time. In "He arrived yesterday", yesterday is adverbial, modifying the verb “arrived”. But you wouldn't try and cut it out...

And my favourite example is the sentence "You should never use adverbs" where technically speaking, never is an adverb modifying the verb “use”.

Right adverbs

Here in the Write Way we have nuance on nuance, and the fact is that even when you don’t need it, sometimes you do want to use one of those “lazy” adverbs we only just finished castigating a few hundred words ago.


Because it’s the right word.

That could be for two main reasons. Rhythm, or tone. There are others, but c’mon, we’re nearing two thousand words of nuance here, that’s quite enough for one day.

Adverbs for Rhythm

Sometimes we want to massage the rhythm of our sentences because it helps the emphasis to fall better. It’s hard to give concrete examples here because it’s all about instinct and feel for the most part.

“He was a little thickset but very quick on his feet” just sounds better than “he was thickset but speedy on his feet” or even “he was thickset but quick on his feet”

Although writing that out, I think I’d render it:

He was thickset yet quick.

The palindromic assonance is too good to pass up…

…but the point stands on the adverb okay?

Sometimes “Her face was plain” just doesn’t hit like “her face was really quite plain”.

Maybe you need the rhythm of the soft -ly and the hard t.

Maybe you need to make music, nicely.

Or maybe it’s a tonal issue…

Adverbs for Tone

Maybe, in our previous example, you want the tonal effect of emphasising her plainness without strengthening it, because she’s not ugly but she is more plain than “plain” brings across.

Sometimes you want the subtle different in emphasis by calling someone very fat instead of corpulent instead of obese. Sometimes, very short is better than dwarf-like. Sometimes she was very attractive instead of hot or sexy etc.

Again, it’s hard to put a finger on specifics but if you’re an experienced writer you’ll know it when you see it.

Sometimes the adverb is just the right word to use.

Actually Using Adverbs

Here endeth the lesson.

And the practicality is simple:

Delete your adverbs…

…when you’re starting out. Err on the side of reducing them.

Because the rule of thumb is that you should never use an adverb because you don't know the right word. But as your vocabulary grows? You'll find plenty of times when adverbs are very useful.

Asking if you should use adverbs is like asking if you should season your food. That’s a silly question. The right question is when should you season it? And how much?

Answering that separates the chefs from the shambles.

And it separates the writers from the digital “writers”.

And it separates me from your inbox, because we’re now done.

Until next week, may your pipe smoke pleasantly and your adverbs land effectively,

James Carran, Craftsman Writer

Join the conversation

or to participate.