Bob ran really fast down the brightly lit hallway to the slowly closing door at the very end. He was on his way to his most favorite class: Grammar 101.
While we commend Bob’s enthusiasm for grammar, this use of adverbs is excessive. We call this “adverbial pollution.” Just like industrial pollutants pouring into otherwise clean rivers, using too many adverbs in a passage saps the life out of the text. Many environmental pollution problems are solved through chemistry, and we can use two chemistry processes to solve adverbial pollution: organic synthesis and filtration. We’ll discuss these strategies below, but before we do, let’s clarify our understanding of adverbs.
Adverbs are descriptive words with three purposes:
- Adverbs describe verbs. They tell in what manner an action occurs, when, to what degree, and where.
- John walked confidently. Mary gazed longingly at him.
- He had received his promotion yesterday. She immediately noticed his pride.
- John began to sneeze violently. Her perfume really bothered him.
- He escaped outside. Mary walked away.
That last bullet is confusing to some people. Those underlined words sure look a lot like prepositions. However, like many words, their part of speech depends on what they do in a particular sentence. Unlike prepositions, which describe where something is, these words describe where an action occurs. Since they are describing the verbs, or actions, in these sentences, they are adverbs.
- Adverbs describe adjectives. Adjectives describe nouns (people, places, things, ideas), and adverbs describe adjectives.
- John felt suddenly better. Mary was nearly inconsolable.
- Adverbs describe other adverbs.
- His pace became noticeably faster. Almost imperceptibly, Mary’s bottom lip began to quiver.
Adverbs are quite interesting. One adverb, describing one word, can be used in many places without changing the meaning of a sentence, though the placement may affect the style, complexity, or clarity of the sentence. For example, the adverb “imperceptibly” in the last sample above can be placed in four different positions to describe “quiver.”
- Imperceptibly, her bottom lip began to quiver.
- Her bottom lip imperceptibly began to quiver.
- Her bottom lip began, imperceptibly, to quiver.
- Her bottom lip began to quiver imperceptibly.
See how powerful and how much fun adverbs can be? They have multiple purposes and can be used in multiple positions. However, these two characteristics of adverbs encourage their overuse, i.e., adverbial pollution. This creates two problems, each solved by a particular editing strategy: unspecific word use, which is solved through organic synthesis, and unnecessary word use, which is solved through filtration.
Strategy 1: Organic Synthesis
In organic synthesis, a chemist transforms multiple organic compounds into a single new organic compound. [Organic compounds are made up of molecules containing carbon, which are found in all living things.] In each step of the process, a real molecule, or major product, is created, and these products are used in the next step. This process continues until the final molecule is created. Easy, right? In very simplified terms, this is what happens: combine all or part of compound A to all or part of compound B to create the desired compound C.
Ok, now that we’ve just completed an entire semester of organic chemistry, let’s apply this to adverbial pollution and editing. We combine the meaning of an adverb with the meaning of the word it describes, and use those definitions to produce a new word that contains the relevant definitions of the original words. Perhaps we’d better look at some simple examples.
- to run (to travel by moving the legs at a faster pace than walking) + fast (quickly, rapidly) = to race (to run or move quickly)
“He ran fast down the hallway.” = “He raced down the hallway.”
- to leave (to exit or depart) + quietly (without noise or commotion) + unobtrusively (not noticeably) = to slip (to leave discreetly)
“He left the room quietly and unobtrusively.” = “He slipped out of the room.”
- to talk (make meaningful speech) + really (very, to a high degree) + loudly (at a high or uncomfortable volume) = to shout
“He talked really loudly to be heard over the music.” = “He shouted to be heard over the music.”
- so (to a high degree) + happy (positive feeling, joyful) = ecstatic (overwhelming joyfulness)
“I am so happy to see you.” = “I am ecstatic to see you.”
All this is the very complicated way of saying replace multiple words with one word that encompasses their meanings.
We do not advocate that you use this strategy to remove all your adverbs, but if you discover yourself using many adverbs, consider it. Certainly, if you are using two or more adverbs to describe a single word, then we recommend it. Here’s why. If you need multiple descriptive words, you probably have not used an accurate word in the first place. We prefer using words that mean what we want to say instead of using words that are similar but need to be modified. For this reason, we try to avoid the third use of adverbs.
Strategy 2: Filtration
The filtration process is much easier to explain than organic synthesis—fortunately. Filtration is a process for removing material from a solution. For example, think of a water filter. The water passes through, and the stuff you don’t want is captured and removed, leaving clean water. The editing equivalent is similar. When our editors at Precise Edit find adverbs that don’t add value to the sentence, we remove them, leaving clean sentences.
Let’s look at that last example above and see how this works.
“I am so very happy to see you.” In this case, “so” and “very” have the same function and meaning. They are both describing “happy,” and they both mean “to a high degree.” For all practical purposes, “so very happy” has the same meaning as “so happy” and “very happy.” We can filter out one of these words without changing the meaning of the sentence. Using the organic synthesis strategy above, we might remove both and use “ecstatic.”
As we can see, filtration can be used to remove redundant words. Here are four more examples of this.
- “Mary’s dogs are becoming much more comfortable around John’s cats.” (Either of these adverbs, or both, can be removed.)
- “This town is becoming increasingly noisy.” (“Becoming noisy” means that the formerly quiet town is now noisy. [We could remove “now” from this description, as it is implied by “is.” We left it in to balance “formerly quiet.”] “Increasingly noisy” means that the volume level is continuing to increase, i.e., becoming noisier. Since “increasingly noisy” implies “becoming,” keeping the adverb “increasingly” allows us to remove the verb “becoming,” leaving us with “The town is increasingly noisy.”)
- “The dog barked incessantly all night long.” (In this case, the phrase “All night long” includes the meaning of “incessantly,” so “incessantly” is redundant and can be removed.)
- “These are enough examples for now.” (In this example, the verb “are” means now, so “now” is redundant.)
Filtration also removes words that are unnecessary (not: “completely unnecessary”). Here are four examples of this.
- “This is really true.” (In this case, “really true” is no more true than “true,” so we can filter out that extra adverb.)
- “This gap actually widened.” (In this case, “actually widened” is the same as “widened.” Perhaps the writer is trying to express some surprise, in which case the writer should have said so, e.g., “We were surprised that the gap widened.”)
- “He quietly whispered sweet nothings in her ear.” (“Whispering” implies “quietly,” so we can filter out “quietly.”)
- “They sat down on the chair.” (“Sitting” and “sitting down” mean the same thing, so “down” is unnecessary.)
What all this means
Efficient writing uses accurate words to communicate an idea (organic synthesis). Economical writing uses the fewest words possible to communicate an idea (filtration). Strong writing is both efficient and economical. Therefore, if you want to produce strong writing, you must clean up adverbial pollution.
Summary: Industrial pollution can sap the life out of rivers, and adverbial pollution can sap the life out of your writing. Two techniques clean up this problem and make your writing more lively.
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