Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Back to Basics: Adverbs

Today we tackle the modifier of modifiers: adverbs. These handy little words and phrases allow writers to answer implied questions, to specify. We can modify our adjectives, verbs, even other adverbs with them. Our character can lose a paltry two pounds on her new diet and readers will know just how she feels about it from that powerful adverb.

In many instances, you create an adverb by adding –ly to the end of an adjective, e.g. “happily married couple”. In the first example, we answer the question, “What kind of pounds?” and in the second we discover “What sort of married?” You could, instead, refer to a recently married couple, letting your readers know (approximately) when the couple tied the knot.

We use many adverbs as intensifiers. We add them to tell someone that our subject not only has blue eyes but that they are piercing. Our readers understand the severity of the situation when we write that, “The opposing forces were completely overwhelmed.”

You can’t rely on the –ly to alert you to an adverb’s presence. You should consider what the word does in your sentence. Some adverbs help you create a crystal-clear mental picture for your readers. Others merely dress your verbal window and take up space without contributing to your meaning.

Remember that clauses and phrases can act as adverbs. You could write, “Lucy likes to fish,” and use an infinitive phrase to tell your readers what she likes. “Once we’ve danced the night away, we’ll go out to breakfast,” uses both an adverbial clause at the beginning (telling you when) and an adverbial prepositional phrase at the end (telling your where).

Adverbs also emphasize words. If you write, “I really hate that song,” you stress to your reader how much you hate it. The adverb draws attention to the word it modifies. You don’t want to lean on this crutch in every sentence. As with adjectives, you should only use adverbs when you can’t create the intended effect by changing the word being modified to a more specific one. It can help you guide your readers, however, when used sparingly.