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David Ritchie

Do You Need That Adverb?

boy on bike

Readers with long memories may recall Tom Swiftie jokes from the early 1960s. Named after the hero in the Tom Swift series of juvenile adventure novels, Tom Swifties relied on a corny use of adverbs. Here are examples:

boy on bike“We’re travelling faster than sound!” said Tom, swiftly.

“The temperature is 200 degrees!” said Tom, heatedly.

“It’s the Hound of the Baskervilles!” said Tom, doggedly.

After a year or so, Tom Swifties retired to the Home for Antique Humour, there to join shaggy dog stories and knock-knock jokes.

But Tom Swifties taught a lesson: Adverbs matter. That’s why writers should use adverbs carefully — and sparingly.

When you think of using an adverb, ask: Is it necessary? Sometimes the verb alone conveys all the needed information.

Consider: “I don’t need help!” she snarled angrily.

Here, the verb “snarled” tells the readers all they need to know. “Angrily” is redundant. Cut it out.

Let’s take another example: “At the airport, he inched slowly to the ticket counter.” You don’t need “slowly” here. There’s no other way you can inch.

Yet don’t be afraid to use adverbs when required. For instance: “Quickly and silently, she moved to the window.” Here you need two adverbs — “quickly and silently” — to tell how the person moved.

Remember that adverbs slow down reading. So use them only when you’re sure they’re needed.

To close with a Tom Swiftie: “Use adverbs only to add significant information,” said Tom, meaningfully.


Have you come across examples of over-the-top adverbs? Please share them in the comments below.

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About the author

David Ritchie

David Ritchie writes from Brookline, Massachusetts. His articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and many other periodicals.

2 Comments on “Do You Need That Adverb?”

  • Wilf Popoff


    Good points David!

    Redundant adverbs do have a use, apparently. Lawyers employ them when addressing a court to allow them to collect their thoughts; they’re a kind of mental space filler.

  • Yvonne Hertzberger


    I use adverbs sparingly (hey, there’s one) Like all rules, the one about not using adverbs needs to be regarded with caution. There are times when they are not only advisable, but necessary. My guideline is to take another look whenever I include one to make sue it adds the the understanding of what is written. If the sentence can be understood just as well without it I leave it out.

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