The Saga of the Adverb-Finder Thingy

Hey Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/20/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

A correspondent on a ListServ I used to attend regularly wrote that she was searching for the name of “a bit of editing software that would highlight all adverbs if you typed search adverbs or all verbs if you typed search verbs.”

Hackles rose on my neck. Here we are, back to the topic that won’t die: the dumbing down of America.

This is a writer’s slippery slope.

Searching for, finding, installing and using software that highlights all adverbs put the writer a tempting single click away from deleting all adverbs. And that’s just plain silly. I strongly advise against such software, even if you can find it.

If you believe perhaps you’re using too many adverbs, follow these two simple guidelines. The third point is a tidbit of important parenthetical information (and no, parenthetical information doesn’t have to be enclosed in parentheses):

  1. Never use an adverb in a tag line (the bit of he said, she said narrative that doesn’t make sense by itself and is most often attached to the dialogue with a comma). If the narrator has described the scene well enough, you won’t need adverbs in tag lines.
  2. Use only strong action verbs in your narrative sentences. This will cause all unnecessary adverbs and adjectives to fall away of their own accord. If you use only strong action verbs, you will consciously select only necessary adverbs and adjectives to modify the picture you’re placing in the reader’s mind. Again, this will occur naturally. It’s as easy as falling off a stack of platitudes.
  3. Despite what some folks say, not every word that ends in “ly” is an adverb. For example, the widely misused “likely” is an adjective that is synonymous with “probable,” not an adverb that’s synonymous with “probably.”

English just isn’t a one-rule-fits-all language. DESPITE Mark Twain, who once wrote that when you find an adverb you should kill it, and DESPITE the felonious intent of wannabe writing instructors who tell their charges to use no more than three (or five or some other arbitrary number) of exclamation points per page.

I’ve heard similar advice concerning the use of em dashes (long dashes) and colons and semicolons. And of course we’ve all been taught that hunting season never closes on state-of-being verbs or “had” or gerunds (many alleged writing instructors call gerunds “ing words”) because those three word-types cause passive voice.

Uhh, no, they don’t, Grasshopper.

State-of-being verbs by themselves do not cause passive voice, and neither the word “had” nor those pesky “ing words” are within a thousand mles of having anything to do with passive voice.

Although it’s true that adverbs can clutter up your writing, some adverbs in some situations are necessary. And “necessary” is the key word. See item 3 above.

The secret to good usage is not to get rid of “all” adverbs, state-of-being verbs, instances of “had,” adjectives, or anything else, but to get rid of any unnecessary adverbs, state-of-being verbs, adjectives, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, and dialogue.

It is the Human Mind (yours) that should determine which words and sentences and paragraphs remain and in what sequence.

Okay, here are a few guidelines (flexible, not “rules”) you can apply to your own writing:

  1. The state-of-being verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. When one of these is used in conjunction with a “by phrase” (e.g., The pizza was delivered by Harvey) you’ve written a passive construction (or passive voice). Passive constructions, unless you’re writing a service manual for a vacuum cleaner, are bad.
  2. Some state-of-being verbs are necessary. To describe the size or relative size (the state of being) of a city, you have to use a state-of-being verb.  But don’t allow your narrator to describe the state of being of a character. (Don’t let him say “John was angry” or “John was livid” or “Joaquin was frightened” etc.)
  3. Use Your Mind. Despite what your  father said, it’s a wonderful thing. The human mind is the original spell checker, the original grammar checker, and the original verb and adverb-finder thingy.
  4. As part of using your mind, Read Your Work Aloud. If it sounds good to you, it will sound good in the reader’s mind. If you hit a spot that sounds awkward or rough, that’s because it’s, you know, awkward or rough. Fix it.

Remember that you’re only in charge until the reader gets hold of your work. Only You can decide what to leave in or omit from your writing, but only the reader gets to determine whether it’s necessary or distracting.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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14 thoughts on “The Saga of the Adverb-Finder Thingy”

  1. Easy way for people to double check their adverbs and whatnot? Simply print out their work and go through it with a highlighter and highlight the words in question. There is software out there that will identify the “adverbs”, but it doesn’t differentiate between an actual adverb and an -ly word used as a adjective. Highlighting the words yourself not only allows YOU to differentiate between the two and skip over the adjectives, it allows you to be completely hands-on with your own work. Along the same vein, you can go through and highlight (in a different color) all the -ing words – again differentiating between the ones you need to consider editing out (and possibly leave in place) and gerunds that can be left alone.

    What it comes down to is this – software MAY be able to help, but it simply can’t do all that human brain is capable of when it comes to identifying the need for a word.

    Incidentally, here’s one you’ll love, Harvey – I ran across something a little while back talking about how use of “adjectives” is lazy writing. Yeah, tell me how stupid that is! Thankfully I’ve only seen that in one place so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else picks it up, makes it widespread, and it suddenly becomes a new “rule”. And that weasel word list just keeps growing by leaps and bounds.

    I joked with a friend a while back (and even blogged about it) that if we were to apply all the “rules” to the extreme so many people take them, we would no longer be able to write in English. I was really only half-joking. On my blog, I challenged brave souls to take a page of some text they had written and apply all the “rules” they knew of to that page in the extreme in which those rules tend to be enforced and see what it does to their writing. No one took me up on that challenge. *G*

    • Dawn, I just visited the editing software site you mentioned. As you pointed out, it compiles lists of varous items (like adverbs) so the writer can see them. Under “What does Smart Edit NOT do?” they include this jewel: “[Decisions about what to retain or delete are] yours and only yours to make. Software cannot make them for you, and should not even try. After all, how many repeated phrases are to be found in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech? Would that speech be remembered today if Dr. King had removed all but one of those ‘I have a dream’ phrases in response to a software prompt?'”
      And of course, they’re absolutely right. Only the human mind and the individual writer should make those choices.

  2. Sharing at Harvey’s request:

    I really wish more people would use common sense when applying the “rules”, not to mention use common sense when telling others what the “rules” are. Sure would make life easier for up and coming writers.

    BTW, for those who actually have common sense and know not to take any of the rules to the extreme, there actually is an editing software that will identify all the adverbs for you in a chunk of writing. Needless to say, it doesn’t differentiate between a word used as an adverb vs an adjective (like the “likely” example you gave). I’ve used it for a while now to help me strengthen my writing and identify habits. It used to be a freebie, but they recently revamped the software and now charge for it. It’s called Smart Edit. I use it strictly to help me target unnecessary adverbs and other words as well. I generally end up leaving most of the adverbs I’ve used in the initial writing process, but I do get rid of the unnecessary ones. Not to mention it helps me double check the “was” and “that” overuse tendency I have so I can fix the ones that aren’t vital.

    Anyway, it’s there, but I don’t advise anyone to use it who wants to take the rules to extremes. It’s definitely a helper only for those with common sense. 😉

    • Thanks Dawn. You also mention “‘was’ and ‘that’ overuse.” I don’t believe in “overuse.” If a particular word is required in a particular place, the writer should use that word without regard for how many other times it has appeared. I’ve seen people alternate “which” and “that” to avoid “overusing” either one (as if they were interchangeable), and the same with “imply” and “infer” and “if” and “whether.” None of those pairs is interchangeable. The only real rule to apply is to study and learn the craft. Everyone who makes their living with words should know the language intimately and their study of the language and its nuances should be ongoing. But we’re humans. We always seek the easy way out. Problem is, it shows.

      • When I say “overuse”, I mean using them unnecessarily. When I’m writing fast, which I tend to do on days where I write 3K plus in one day, I fall into lazy speech writing. *G* When I edit, I go back and fix that. Part of that is identifying where I overused was or that (or others on my list) and reword those sentences where the story flow could be improved by removing them. I retain the ones that fit best with the story flow, but I remove and reword sentences to improve flow where those words are unnecessary or I can simply improve the way that sentence reads. I don’t just substitute one word for another. I completely reword sentences or phrases for more punch and better flow. I agree with you completely – some words people substitute are NOT interchangeable.

        • As I suspected. 🙂 Usually my “reply” comments here are just for the edification of those who are reading quietly in the wings. That’s also why I asked you to post your second comment here.

          • Good to know. 🙂

            Thanks for having such a common sense blog, Harvey. It’s very refreshing. 🙂

  3. My hackles go up whenever anyone suggests that an editing program can be a substitute for knowing how to write and use the tools of the English language judiciously (eeee I used and adverb :O ). I suppose it might be interesting to find out how often you’re using certain kinds of words or sentence structures, but in the end, the best test is to see how it reads. This means putting the thing down for a bit and coming back to it with fresh eyes, and of course, enlisting some knowledgeable beta readers.

  4. Enlightening discussion. I ended the day with 26,000 words plus on the new book tentatively entitled Deadly Playmates…I’m a happy camper. This is book four. It’s getting easier and more rewarding all the time. Query …what about names? I check an old phone book to be sure I’m not duplicating a local name…though it’s old so how good is that.? I do feel confident about unusual names…not so many duplicates out there. I don’t know. Does anyone have a source they use for new names for characters who sometimes arrive on the scene equipped with names but not always………..

    • Generally, I go with what grabs me or what shows up. As long as the name isn’t trademarked or “famous,” no biggie as far as I know. Anyone else? Love your title, by the way.

  5. Thanks for another good post, Harvey.
    I chuckled at your suggestion to read our work aloud. Once, in a writers’ critique group, I suggested such a thing to a new writer, and was seconded by others in the group. The writer thought it was a good idea and asked how to do it. She wanted to know if there was a book on it she could study,

    • Sigh. Hey, maybe I ought’a write a new nonfiction book: How to Read Your Work Aloud in Lieu of Using a First Reader. 🙂

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