Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Home for an Adverb

Adverbs are fun little words. They provide a connection between clauses, they modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and prepositions, and they express some sort of manner or quality. Most adverbs end in “ly.” Just to be tricky, some adverbs can end in “ly” or not (like bad/badly, slow/slowly, and hard/hardly). The hard part is knowing when an adverb is an adverb and where to put it in the sentence.


You know it’s an adverb if the word describes a kind of manner or quality. I like to substitute “in an <X> manner” to help me distinguish it, where X represents the root word. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s an adverb.


Typically, adverbs belong either as a (highly removable) caveat word at the beginning of a sentence (like this one), or all the way at the very end. Let’s look at a few adverbs and see what happens.


I felt bad.

I felt badly.


In the first sentence, the speaker is unwell or is unhappy about something. “Bad” is an adjective here. In the second sentence, the speaker touched something and made a sticky mess of it. The difference is subtle. The trick is to add the words “in an <X> manner” to the root word and see if it still means what you need to say.


Look at another one. This one is roughly parallel to the last example.


She looks beautiful.

She looks beautifully.


The first sentence means that today, this woman’s appearance is exceptional. “Beautiful” is an adjective here too, but the sentence kind of makes sense if you add the “in a beautiful manner” to it. The new sentence doesn’t mean that the woman looks nice, though, so you know that beautiful is an adjective here. The second example sentence is more mysterious. Because the “ly” ending means “in a beautiful manner,” this second sentence means “she looks in a beautiful manner” or, her way of looking at stuff is very nice. It’s an odd sentiment and probably not a common one.


When I’m trying to decide whether an adjective should be an adverb and have the “ly” ending, it’s this “She looks beautiful” sentence that I try to substitute. It’s my little trick.


It is rare that an adverb belongs in the middle of a sentence. The only time you’d leave it there is if the noun the adverb modifies can’t be moved to the end. Look at this sentence.

In a truly heroic effort, Tom programmed the VCR.


If you try to move the adverb to the end, the sentence no longer makes sense.


In a heroic effort, Tom programmed the VCR truly.


You could get rid of the muddling adverb (truly) and the prepositional phrase and make a new adverb, like this:


Tom programmed the VCR heroically.


But that could also mean that the result of his efforts is astonishing, not that he showed terrific patience in the face of adversity, as the original sentence says. You could try sticking the adverb in the middle, letting it modify the predicate verb (programmed).


Tom heroically programmed the VCR.


Now the sentence says the same thing as the first sentence, only without the prepositional phrase. If you are tidying up, this is a good effort to make. If you’re being creative and word count doesn’t matter, you can stick with the original sentence.


You can also start with a caveat adverb, like this:


Heroically, Tom programmed the VCR.


This says the same thing as the original sentence as well, although not as vehemently. Most editors would look askance at the extra word and lop it off. That leaves:


Tom programmed the VCR.


It may be factual, but it’s not as colorful as the first version. If you’re writing highly technical details, of course, this last is the way to go—no adverb at all.


In the next blog, I’ll expose some tragically overused, abused, and misused adverbs.