Many adverbs are unnecessary. They tend to clutter your sentences and can annoy your readers. So how to spot them and deal with them?
First, what’s an adverb?
An adverb is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies a verb (think “something that adds to a verb). But they may also modify an adjective, another adverb, a noun phrase, a clause, or a sentence. Adverbs typically answer questions such as how?, where?, when?, how often?, and to what extent?. Like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, they’re considered one of the parts of speech and perform a very useful function in writing.
So, what’s an empty adverb?
If your write a sentence that uses a verb with a specific meaning and then add an adverb that has much the same meaning, you’re being redundant, and the adverb serves no useful purpose in your writing. Here are several examples:
The radio blared loudly. Blare indicates loudness, so loudly is just filler.
John clenched his teeth tightly. There’s no other way to clench one’s teeth, so tightly is an empty adverb.
The same would be true for an adverb modifying an adjective, as in “effortlessly easy”.
Here are a few empty adverbs to be wary of: absolutely, actually, completely, constantly, continually, continuously, finally, hopefully, incredibly, ironically, literally, really, totally, unfortunately. These words and their relatives often seem to be there to provide emphasis, but all too often, they do just the opposite.
Empty adverbs tend to dilute the meaning and take the sharpness out of sentences. Read the following example: “He was, in fact, the only person actually in the stadium.” The two empty adverbs are “in fact” and “actually”, which accomplish little except adding filler words. Rewriting the sentence yields: “He was the only person in the stadium.” This cleaned-up version is not only shorter and more efficient, it’s actually sharper and easier to read. So, try to keep your sentences on point.
One final caution regarding empty adverbs. Don’t put them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking. Example:
Hopefully, time would run out.
Remember, adverbs are supposed to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” is not so modified.
Another example is from the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code:
Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.
The opening phrase “almost inconceivably” is an empty adverb.
One of the marks of an effective writer is to make every word count; every word should do some useful work in your writing. If you do a diligent and critical self-edit (avoiding loving words just because you wrote them), or you have an editor who has an eye for spotting empty words, you’ll be one-up on many authors.
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