3 Examples of Adverbs Used Wrongly

Adverbs are the zombies of literature. 

The Reapers are the Angels

I just started reading The Reapers are the Angels, by Alden Bell (pen name of Joshua Gaylord) after accidentally dropping in on a sale in my local indie book store (did I just use an adverb in a post where I intend to bash them mercilessly? (oh damn!, I did it again)). This isn’t going well.

Anyhow… the book starts off very well. The main character is interesting, though it took me a while to get a grip on her age, and so is the setting (Zombie apocalypse? yes please.) Alden Bell’s prose is a mix of Hemingway and McCarthy but slightly less taxing on the reader. So, overall, rather good. But then, much like the zombies in the book, I ran into a literary tool that just won’t die.

And then the zombies stagger in.

The following short paragraph is from a point early in the story where our hero, Temple, enters a house and meets three of the undead.

Temple has forgotten how bad they smell – that muddy mixture of must and putrefaction, oil and rancid shit. She sees a faecal ooze sliding wetly down  the back of the woman’s legs. They must have fed recently, so they will be strong. And they are between her and the stairs.

Did you see that? Did you? How about this, on the very next page:

She reaches behind her, feels around for anything and comes up with a screwdriver which she grips hard and drives into the man’s neck. He lets go and totters backwards, but the angle of the screwdriver is wrong, it goes straight through rather than up into the brain, so he begins to walk in circles gurgling liquidly and opening and closing his jaw.

If I hadn’t been reading about a girl literally kicking the shit our of three zombies I would have thrown the book to the floor. Not because the adverbs are bad, per se, but because they are so frighteningly unnecessary (see what I did there?).

I still recommend the book though.

George Martin, on the other hand, made me shout at one of his books (I’m pretty sure it was A Storm of Swords) when he described a character, just seconds after sex.

His manhood glistened wetly.

Really, George, really? Really?


14 thoughts on “3 Examples of Adverbs Used Wrongly”

  1. Point well taken, Johann. Actually, I think you’re absolutely right. Most adverbs are unnecessary and indulgent–and the ones you cite from my book are as unnecessary as they come. I suppose it comes down to taste. Narrative efficiency has never been that interesting to me as a writer–or a reader for that matter. I’m fond of excess. Why just do drama when you could do MELODRAMA (with unnecessary capitalization). I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that I would describe as “overwritten,” but I’ve read many that I thought were “underwritten.” That’s why I would take Faulkner over Hemingway any day.

    In any case, thanks for reading the book–and I hope you find something to enjoy in it despite its wanton indulgences.



    1. Hey Josh, thanks for chiming in. (I’m actually a little flattered).

      I may be guilty of melodrama when I say “would have thrown the book to the floor” and feel slightly embarrassed, now that the author himself saw my post. (I used an adverb there, didn’t I?)

      To your credit, I crawled into bed early last night just to keep reading the book.

      As for over- or underwritten, your style reminds me more and more of Cormac McCarthy, which I assure you is a good thing. And just this morning I recommended your book on Twitter. So a few unnecessary adverbs are not hurting your book. Much.

      I promise to post a full review when I’m done.


      1. No need to be embarrassed. I just couldn’t resist. Your criticism was one of those that I come across sometimes and think, “Yeah, I know, I agree with you–except I LIKE it like that!” Faulkner, Master of Indulgence, once used a string of seven adjectives to describe one noun. It made me giddy. I’ve been striving for that level of excess ever since.

        I appreciate your writing about the book–though I can’t promise any fewer adverbs in the sequel.


  2. “Your criticism was one of those that I come across sometimes and think, “Yeah, I know, I agree with you–except I LIKE it like that!””

    I agree. I get why it annoys people, and sometimes it annoys me too, but on the whole I actually really like adverbs.

    Well, except this one: “His manhood glistened wetly.” :-/

    Interesting post Johann! :-)


  3. though this is hardly my genre, I want to stick up for the author if he’s doing something he may not in fact actually be doing. The repeated use of clumsy constructions such as adverbs in this case, may actually, verily, serve to highlight the quality that he wants to convey, in this case the emphasis on the liquid slime and ooze which i suspect is a repeated theme. He may want you to feel that liquid creep and slime over your skin as you read and to do that he will repeatedly highlight it in this way so it stands out from the rest of the text. Or he may have had no such intention.

    I love making adverbs from nouns and verbs where they don’t exist in the dictionary. I used ‘vitreously fleshy’, ‘deathly dried spume’ and ‘shiftlessly’ within the first couple of pages of my first novel.

    Make of words what you will. I would merrily shoot the person whose advice is quoted in the first comment… Wise man?


    1. I’m not sure differing opinions on adverbs warrant shooting anyone, though we clearly agree it is a matter worth discussing. I tend to lean to the “less is more” theory of adverb usage.

      Perhaps a thorough reading of Faulkner will make me change my mind.


  4. Interesting dialogue you’ve started here. I think its all a matter of preference. I like my own writing to be lean and mean, but I won’t fault anyone for using an adverb here and there. But I did start a book and had to stop reading due to adverb abuse. There were ten adverbs in the first three pages. The only conclusion I came up with was the author was trying to depict a Victorian era story, and because her characters were British everyone had the right to sound, well, you know, charmingly British. It just came off as cliche. So I put it down. It’s just not my kind of book.


  5. I can forgive Martin sooner than the others. Once you pass 1,000 pages, there’s almost always going to be something regrettable on some page. I don’t even begrudge the copy editor for missing that one. I do recall the “wetly” line, though, and scrunching up my face, trying to discern if that could ever be apt.


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