A Test to Decide Whether Adverbs and Adjectives Deserve to Live

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

These three bits of writing advice, from experts Stephen King, Ben Yagoda and the team of Strunk and White, aren’t just their authors’. They’re pervasive in writing and teaching circles.

The idea behind them is that “A totally scary and extremely mean-looking person hurriedly moved toward me” is a poor substitute for “Freddy Krueger lunged at me.”  Some people rely too much on adjectives and adverbs to convince readers of whatever point they’re trying to make. But it’s usually better to give readers solid, efficient, information-packed nouns and verbs and let them draw their own conclusions.

A lot of writing experts take issue with this advice. Just telling students and writers to avoid adjectives and adverbs is stupid, and often hypocritical, these folks say. As an example, linguist Geoffrey Pullum points out the Strunk and White dictate: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place,” and Pullum notes that Strunk and White themselves needed three adjectives to say it: weak, inaccurate, and tight.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, in my editing work, I scrutinize a lot of adjectives and hack out a lot of adverbs. In the process, I’ve noticed something that could help struggling writers: The adjectives and manner adverbs that are worth keeping are often the ones that add new information. The ones that should go are usually the ones that contain value judgments. They tell readers how to feel about something rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves.

Compare:

a totally awesome and cool car

and

a sleek, high-performance sportscar

“Sleek” and “high-performance” are a lot more substantive than “totally awesome” and "cool." They contain at least some solid information. That’s why the second sentence is much more like one you’d find in a professionally written and edited article.

Some adjectives are even more information-packed: A red Italian sportscar.

Manner adverbs like uniquely, exquisitely, totally, and my personal least-favorite truly often do more harm then good. However, manner adverbs like slowly, quickly, eventually, drily, solemnly, and rarely usually contain information above and beyond what the verbs and nouns can offer. When they do, they're justifying their own existence.

“Dave quickly moved toward the door” tells us more than just “Dave moved toward the door.” But “Frank angrily punched his boss in the back of the head” doesn’t measure up as well against “Frank punched his boss in the back of the head.”

So when you’re wondering whether your adjectives and especially your adverbs measure up, ask yourself whether they contain any solid new information. If the answer’s no, it may be time for them to go.