The Dreaded Adverb and Other Misused Modifers

Today I'm hosting a segment of Peg’s Blog Crawl!

Yesterday’s post was at See the complete Blog Crawl schedule at

The Dreaded Adverb and Other Misused Modifiers

Some editors want them all gone. Adverbs are blamed for much purple prose, and admittedly, they are often guilty. But they’re only tools. Adverbs don’t kill writing. Writers kill writing. Writers (and speakers, too) need to learn the pitfalls of adverb addiction. Here are a few to watch for.

Very: Such a tiny word, and yet so powerful! Grammarians call it a “power” adverb, since it adds strength to another adverb or an adjective. If your mother is angry, that’s one thing. If she’s VERY angry, that’s another. Sticking very into conversation or exposition too often, however, rings false and lessens the power of the whole. The same can be said for “really”, which acts in much the same way and might be even more abused than “very”.

The “ly” adverbs: at Chris Verstraete’s blog earlier this week, I mentioned the mistake of having every dialogue tag festooned with an adverb. Similarly, every verb does not require modification with ever-more-unlikely adverbs. Antagonists do not always have to chuckle evilly, or wring their hands malevolently, or move stealthily. And when authors start combing the thesaurus for synonyms, they might want to consider whether people actually say words like “maleficent” or “mordacious”.

It also pays to use the word “suddenly” with great caution. We sometimes think it adds drama, but often what results is melodrama instead. Sparing use of the word is best, and a word search can benefit beginners, showing how often the word pops up. There are variations on this type of modifier: “in an instant” or “at that moment”, for example. If that moment happens too often, it loses its effect.

Other modifiers, such as adjectives and prepositional phrases, can also turn from helpful to heavy-handed if used too often. Every noun does not need an adjective. Although the ancients coupled certain nouns with the same adjective, e.g. “crafty Ulysses”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, modern readers usually object. How many times do we need to be told that the victim’s granddaughter is demure or that the cop is belligerent?

Swearwords are, for some people, a conversational hiccup, and they apply their favorite expletive before every noun. While this habit might be useful to an author attempting to show a character’s ignorance or anger, a little goes a long way, and many readers tire of it in a hurry.

Today’s point is one we might not want to confront: every word we speak or write matters. Modifiers add connotation, detail, and cues for the reader (maybe that should be “clues”, since I write mysteries). Modifiers add color to our speaking and our writing, and I would never recommend leaving them out. It’s just that no one wants her prose to turn purple. I try to stick to the primary colors.

Poser #4-Name three series/novels with the word “corpse” in the title.

The Prizes-Weekly prizes (your choice of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY in e- or print format) drawn from the names of those who comment on the blogs as we go. Comment once/day, but the first commenter each day gets entered twice in Saturday’s drawing!

The Pitch: THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, First in The Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery. Tori Van Camp wakes in a stateroom on a cruise ship with no memory of booking a cruise, but she does have a vivid recollection of being shot in the chest. Determined to find out what happened and why, Tori enlists the help of an odd detective named Seamus. Together they embark on an investigation like nothing she’s ever experienced. Death is all around her, and unless they act quickly, two people she cares about are prime candidates for murder. Read an excerpt and more about this author at Buy the book at

The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to wonderful reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.

The Pathway: The next entry and the answers/comments to the Poser will be up on Monday at 


P.A.Brown said…
Two other words that are overused or used incorrectly are 'pretty' and 'just' and 'as'

'It's pretty much that way'

Technically 'just' is more of a legal term -- just claim, or to be just as in justice is delivered.

I always do a word search on these and other words once a novel is finished. If I find any of those words overused, I replace as many as I can. It invariably makes the ms better.
Hi, P.A., thanks for reminding us. Just and that are the ones I must do a word search on.

P.A.Brown said…
I forgot 'that'. It's good to have a list so when a novel is finished, you can do a quick find. Mine are:

I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them right now.
Earl Staggs said…
Good post, Peg.

I have a hit list of the words I overuse (just, then, that, very are among the usual suspects) and it's usually the fourth or fifth draft before I get rid of all of them. Well, most of them anyway. I keep one or two, along with an occasional "had" and "was."
Maryann Miller said…
Wonderful post. I especially liked "Adverbs don’t kill writing. Writers kill writing." How true that is. We should always remember that in the first draft we write the first thing that comes to mind, complete with an overabundance of adverbs and weak phrasing. It is in the rewriting that we cull through and pull the "weeds."

Popular posts from this blog

it's Not a Cozy! by Mar Preston


A World of Writing Inspiration by Maggie King