This is something my phone has been telling me recently, which, frankly, I’m quite sceptical about. Am I really in danger?
What’s going to happen to me if I don’t buy a memory card? Am I being threatened by my phone?
OK, I know it’s not really serious. I know it’s basically my phone exaggerating for effect, to make me think it’s really important that I free up some space (and to be honest, I probably will get a memory card, but not because my phone told me to). Still, it did make me think about how we use adverbs. And how we don’t.
A lot of writing advice will tell you to avoid using adverbs. Stephen King, for example, famously said,
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
You’ll find a lot of readers and writers who agree with that sentiment. But what, exactly, is wrong with adverbs? The main issue people have with them in fiction is that they make the writer tell instead of show. They lack subtlety, making how someone’s feeling or acting too obvious. Writing is generally effective when this is communicated by how characters act.
I think this also applies to how we use language in our lives. We often don’t need to use a lot of adverbs to get our point across. If we communicate efficiently and effectively, the context will give us the information we need. We don’t need to say The Kids ran downstairs excitedly to open their birthday presents. Likewise, You’re low on space is enough information for a normal person.
Still, I’m sure that there are many adverbs that we use all the time and aren’t really conscious of, so I’ve decided to look up the most-commonly used adverbs in English. According to talkenglish.com, the ten most common adverbs (not including words which can be adverbs, but also other types of words, like by) in English are:
not, also, very, often, however, too, usually, really, early, never
They’re not the obvious words that would come to your mind when you think of adverbs, are they? Because adverbs are words that, basically, modify an adjective or adverb, describe them, we tend to think of them as (often unnecessary) adornment. But you can see that these ten are quite useful. Not negates something. Usually and often provide important temporal information. Never does both. Very and really are perhaps the least necessary, as you could use a verb or adjective without them. Still, we need to intensify somethings sometimes. There’s a difference between saying I’m happy and I’m very happy, isn’t there?
So yes, adverbs can be frustratingly pretentious and incredibly redundant. But like most aspects of a language, they have a practical function, and we use them quite naturally without really noticing.