Is the Road to Hell Paved with Adverbs?


Is the proverbial road to hell really paved with adverbs? Stephen King said it is, and when he speaks, writers listen. And he’s not the only adverb hater out there. Of all the parts of speech available to writers, the adverb is by far the most maligned.

  • Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. ~Anton Checkov
  • Adverbs are the sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. ~Annie Dillard
  • I am dead to adverbs. They cannot excite me. ~Mark Twain
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way

(or almost any way) is a mortal sin. ~Elmore Leonard

Heavens! None of us wants to commit a mortal writing sin, and so new writers are advised to ruthlessly [that’s an adverb] cut them out of our writing. “Your writing will always be stronger without them,” we’re told. But is this advice always true?

I learned in college that the impressionist painters of the mid- to late-nineteenth century were trained in the techniques of classic representational painting. They didn’t paint the way they did because they couldn’t paint any other way. They broke the rules on purpose to create the effect they were after—not what they saw but how they felt about what they saw.

The lesson was, “In order to break the rules, you have to know them first.” That’s also true when it comes to writing.

In my last blog, I mentioned Neil Gaiman’s funny, macabre, urban fantasy Neverwhere as an example of his “funny hats”—vivid, visual clues that cement his characters in the readers’ minds so they are never confused. Today I’d like to point out that Gaiman also liberally [oh dear—another adverb] sprinkles in adverbs to great effect. Here’s an example:

“It’s a rat,” said Richard.
“Yes, it is. Are you going to apologize?”
Maybe he hadn’t heard her properly. Maybe he was the one who was going mad. “To a rat?”
Door said nothing, fairly meaningfully. “I’m sorry,” said Richard, to the rat, with dignity, “if I startled you.”

It isn’t that Gaiman doesn’t know the “no-adverbs rule.” He breaks it on purpose to convey emotion, to overthrow the reader’s preconceptions, or to create a comic disconnect between the action and the description of the action. When Gaiman was asked about his attitude toward adverbs, he replied:

Said’s” are invisible. They vanish onto the page. The eye barely sees them—they become one with the inverted commas that indicate that something is being said. They’re the arrows on the speech balloons that show you who’s saying what. Lots of authors, when they start out, remember from school that you shouldn’t repeat words too much, and are careful to replace each “said” with “growled” “uttered” “yelped’ “hissed” “exclaimed” “asseverated” “muttered” “affirmed” and so on, and cannot work out why people dismiss the writing as amateurish. Use them, but use them sparingly. It’s like salt in a dish. Too much and it’s all you taste.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adverbs (he asseverated, gnomishly) but I do tend to do a final read-through of anything I’ve written, deciding whether each adverb lives or dies, based really on whether it adds anything. If it’s implicit in what I’ve already said in the book I chuck it out, bravely .

After all, as Gaiman pointed out, Shakespeare used adverbs. So did the King James Bible writers and Virginia Woolf. Why should we lose an entire class of English words? Just remember that to break the rules, you have to know them first.

Do you ever use adverbs? Why or why not?


  1. Thank you for turning to Neil Gaiman time and again! I like his attitude toward adverbs and I share it. I use them, but yes, I make sure they add. Either humor, detail, specificity, or just because the word adds a needed rhythm to a sentence. You didn’t mention your own attitude toward adverbs!

  2. I like them, but only to add needed emotional depth, flavor, and comic effect. Too much of a good thing is too much, right? And I agree with your comment about rhythm. I love using the rhythms of speech.

  3. I love Neil Gaiman too. When you are a writing teacher, you see a lot of adverbs, and 90% of them can be cut and the sentence is stronger. But there are always those worthy outliers. I use them warily. 🙂

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