Tuesday, March 2, 2010

'ly Adverbs/Adjectives. Are they really so bad?

Two things happened that sparked my curiosity about this little guideline.
  1. Someone critiqued a story of mine and mentioned that I should get rid of an “ly” word.
  2. I was lurking on some writer’s forums and they were joking about using “ly” adverbs.
My initial thought was, “Is it bad grammar to use ‘ly words?” That didn’t make sense to me. Why have the words if it’s incorrect to use them?

Faced with a puzzle, my interest only grew from there. I did a web search and ran across several grammarians who are adamantly against using these infamous ‘ly words in fiction.

The information on the websites boiled down to the fact that they are NOT incorrect grammatically. It IS considered bad writing to use them, in fiction especially. They are perfectly acceptable in the eyes of those grammar police out there. However, the thought is that adverbs and adjectives are superfluous and detract from the verb or noun that they are attempting to enhance.

I read many examples and many arguments for and against. I thought back to my own writing and realized I have a nice big smattering of ‘ly adverbs/adjectives throughout. But still, what’s so bad about them if used properly? Many published and famous authors use them profusely.

The main arguments against are:
  • They are usually redundant and because of that redundancy, detracts from the potency of the point you were trying to make in the first place.

    Example: He angrily stomped away.

    Okay, so he’s stomping, and typically when someone is stomping, it is implied that they are angry. The ‘angrily’ is an extra word that’s not necessary.

  • They take away the strength of the verb they are trying to enhance and usually only create more vagueness.

    Example: He quickly ran away.

    How quick is quickly? Is he Olympic dash quick or need to pace yourself for a marathon quick? The word ‘ran’ already implies that he’s moving quickly. Actually adding the word ‘quickly’ brings more questions and vagueness. Other verbs could be used here that would add more description and meaning. Like, “He rushed away,” “He hurried away,” “He ran away so fast that he broke the speed limit.”

  • It’s considered poor writing. Now this is the one that got me thinking. I can see the points of the other two arguments, but I could also see using ‘ly words that would add more description instead of detracting from the sentence. How is it considered bad writing?

Mulling all these points over, I went back to the first paragraph in my book. Sure enough, the second sentence had one of those little buggars in it.
“She had just woke up to find herself tied to a chair in an old, dimly lit basement that smelled like gym socks.”
Still not completely understanding why I needed to, I thought about how to go about rewriting this. I tried many different things in my head. After all, ‘dimly lit’ is not redundant. It’s simply explaining that it’s actually not very well lighted. I don’t care about the potency of ‘lit’ because the room isn’t really lit.

I toyed with the sentence and tried out a few rewrites:

Taking out the ‘ly word - “…old, lit basement…” But it isn’t a lit basement. It’s not dark, but it’s not bright either. This implies that it’s bright. No good.

Leaving the ‘ly word without the ‘ly and taking out the word it enhanced – “…old, dim basement…” This just didn’t sound right to me. Yeah, it was accurate in describing the basement, but it just didn’t flow for me.

Changing the sentence completely – “She had just woke up to find herself tied to a chair in an old basement that smelled like gym socks. A fluorescent light flickered above, casting the room in intermittent darkness…”

…And that’s when the lightbulb in my head came on. I had my “ah ha!” moment and complete understanding hit me.

It’s not that it’s bad grammar or poor writing. It’s that you can do so much better. Yeah, I can use “dimly lit basement”, but, with a little more effort, I created a sentence that was so much more descriptive and hands down better (yeah, it still needs work in other areas, but that's for the next post!). I still got my point across and my writing was drastically improved.

So is it wrong to use ‘ly adverbs/adjectives? No. Is it better to not use them? Yes. I know it’s hard if you’re like me and used to using them all the time, but my writing is leaps and bounds better when I don’t use them.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s very hard to not use them. I actually have to use my brain and think of better, more accurate verbs (i.e. "He gripped" instead of "He tightly held"). I have to stretch myself. But then, isn’t that the point? I did want to be a better writer. The exercise of tossing all those ‘ly adverbs/adjectives definitely helps me towards that goal.

Now, every time I run across a ‘ly adverb/adjective, I think to myself, “You can do so much better than that.” And I can.

1 comment:

E A Blech said...

Thanks for this post Elisabeth. I too suffer from the "ly" word syndrome. I'm rewriting now with an effort to remove them. Or at least cut back.

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