Saturday, January 29, 2011

Grammar Is Sexy Saturday: Find and Kill

This week's post isn't so much about what's grammatically correct, but what's considered correct when you're a writer. Writers understand that what would've earned you an A+ from your creative writing teacher will get you a big fat rejection from editors.

Yes, I'm talking about adverbs.

Some of you are whining. "Why does everyone hate adverbs? Come on."

The rest of you have already whipped out switchblades. "Adverb? Kill!"

Books could be written on this subject (maybe have been?), but I'm going to touch on a few examples, give a couple tips, and leave it at that.

I like adverbs. They sound pretty and, in my opinion, can be a great asset if used properly. But how does one know when the adverb they've used should stay or not? Here's how:

Click FIND in your Word.doc. Type in "ly" and click next. Every word that has the "ly" combination will pop up.

When an "ly" word is highlighted, examine the sentence closely.

Example: He whispered softly in her ear.

Using the above example, ask yourself if the adverb is telling us something we don't already know. Softly. Well, how else does one whisper? Sure, someone can whisper harshly, I suppose, but most people expect a whisper to be soft. Softly should be deleted. If it had been: He whispered harshly in her ear, we might need to keep the adverb because the reader wouldn't expect a harsh whisper. Harshly actually adds meaning to the verb.

Example: She was completely lost.

Completely is one I almost always erase. Same with probably. In the above sentence, completely seems redundant and, when you think about, dumb. Completely lost is like saying completely pregnant. You're either pregnant or not pregnant, lost or not lost. There's not a lot of room for gray area here. Again, by adding completely, you're not telling the reader anything more than if you had said: She was lost.

Once you've gone over your manuscript for "ly" words, you'll need to run individual searches on other pesky adverbs, like just.

Just is one of those words that get tricky. Again, examine the context and decide if it's needed.

Example: He stood just an inch away.

This is an actual line from one of my manuscripts. Upon careful examination, I realized "just" was redundant. An inch tells the readers how close he stands. It doesn't need help from "just" to make that clear.

Remember, adverbs should enhance the verb and tell the reader something new about the verb. A dimly lit room is an example of an adverb well-used because there are various ways which a room can be lit.

Final helpful hint: Commonly used adverbs that can almost always be eliminated are completely, probably, just, suddenly, and sometimes especially.