Getting Adverbsarial: Writing in the Age of the Adverb

July 5, 2016 | by Joshua P. Ferguson

the age of the adverb

I consider myself to be someone who stays on top of current events and popular culture. It’s helpful when you’re a writer. Sifting through the latest on the presidential race, Game of Thrones and Beyonce last month, I stumbled across more than one article analyzing our collective overuse of the adverb. I know what you’re thinking, ‘wow, more than one?’ But when is the last time grammar became a trending topic? I’m pretty sure it’s a subject everyone except writers would prefer to ignore.

One of those exceptional writers is Christian Lorentzen, who took to the pages of New York Magazine in May to express his distaste for the adverb. Lorentzen’s take is that this particular part of speech has become a crutch for writers, leading to a glut of mediocre writing—specifically (they really are hard to avoid) writing that’s lazy and inelegant. One of his points, and it’s a good one, is that the deployment of an adverb to boost the color of your writing can often be done with the judicious use of a better adjective or verb. And this makes the perfect segue to the piece I found that lists 128 superior alternatives to the word “very.”

Before getting into that, let’s touch on the definition of the adverb because it’s a tricky one.

Adverb Hell

Understanding the Adverb

According to, an adverb is:

“A class of words that functions as modifiers of verbs or clauses and as modifiers of adjectives, other adverbs or adverbial phrases… They relate to what they modify by indicating place, time, manner, circumstance, degree or cause.”

That’s not so simple as a person, place or thing, or an action. Words we use dozens of times daily (see?) fall under the far-reaching umbrella that is the adverb; not very often, however recently, especially everywhere after that semicolon and before “that.” All adverbs. It’s virtually (ha!) impossible not to use them. I write from experience. It’s making writing this blog post, well, challenging. It’s also making it better, forcing me to evaluate each of my sentences and make them as clear, unfussy and economical as possible—qualities good copywriters cherish.

Adverb Doge

Copywriting Versus the Adverb

As ubiquitous as they are, adverbs are unavoidable. Though Lorentzen is a journalist and many of the examples he cites are literary, when he draws attention to expert use of the adverb (excessive or otherwise) the takeaway is the same: handle with care. For copywriters, where space is perpetually at a premium, this mantra applies to all words. So it should apply doubly to adverbs. Which brings us back to those alternatives to “very.”

There’s an infographic published by making its way around the online copywriter circuit titled, “128 Words to Use Instead of ‘Very’.” The content is self-explanatory. Check it out at the end of the post.

I wonder, did those guys do this because they read Lorentzen’s article? Or hear it on Slate’s culture podcast like I did? Either way, I appreciate that the time was taken to offer a practical guide for writers, to help them avoid the adverb trap and improve their wordsmithing.

It got me thinking, what are other tools copywriters should have at the ready to combat the urge to adverb? Here are four trustworthy resources I keep by my side. Maybe you will too.

Ricky Bobby Adverbs

4 Trusty Tools for Overcoming the Urge to Adverb

  1. Right, you’re a writer. You already have a thesaurus handy at all times. Great. Two things: 1) Do you do your thesaurusing on this site specifically? 2) Do you actually use the thesaurus to avoid “very”? If you answered no to either, then might become your new best friend. Not only is it more user-friendly than other online dictionaries, it allows you to search a phrase like “very good” so you can replace it with shipshape, tip-top or topnotch.
  2. Ask Yourself: While not explicitly a resource, it is a mental check that should be occurring constantly as you write. Ask yourself: How can I say this better? Ask yourself: Is this right for the piece or the medium? Ask yourself: How can I make this shorter? If you haven’t asked yourself that last one, you’ve never truly written copy.
  3. Make a list: Even masters of the craft have cheat sheets. Make your own, and put every word you want to avoid on it—with “very” at the very top.
  4. The Second Pass: When you’re in the zone, it can be super distracting to stop and write and then rewrite and then write (and then rewrite) to get a block of copy just so. Just get your thoughts down. Make your point and move on. Then come back to it for a second pass to clean, polish and trim the fat (and the adverbs).

You should also bookmark this infographic—Good lookin’ out for making it.

128 Words to Use Instead of Very


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