That’s what my son says. He should know. Most of his babysitters were Ph.D. candidates in English, and now he teaches English at a community college in Orange County. One of the classes he teaches is English 99, which is pre-Freshman Comp (English 101). Nearly all of his students are still learning English, but they don’t know quite enough to cope with English 101.
He knows how English works. As I did when I taught high school English, he has his students write a short essay at nearly every class meeting. Practice, after all, is useful (but doesn’t necessarily lead to perfection). I recently asked him to tell me what he means when he tell his students that adverbs are radioactive. Here’s the email he sent me:
Adverbs can add an enormous amount of power to a sentence. When you offer your reader a chance to know not just what happened but also when or why or how it happened, you give your reader a chance to understand more details of the happening so that he or she can understand with the greatest amount of accuracy. Furthermore, the adverbs called intensifiers (words like “very” or “greatly”) can add emphasis to a sentence’s verbs, giving your reader a strong idea of what the sentence is trying to say. In these ways, adverbs can work in a sentence the way a dash of salt can work in a dish; an adverb can give the meaning of a sentence more impact by adding to it.
However, that impact comes with a price. A misused adverb can damage the meaning of its verb, and overused adverbs, especially intensifiers, lose their effectiveness. As an example of the first case, consider the sentence, “She floated serenely.” Looking at that sentence, a reader might wonder how else someone would float; people rarely float nervously or aggressively, for instance. The adverb seems to make the verb pointless. That moment of confusion, as the adverb meant to support the verb instead calls the verb into doubt, can throw a reader out of the sentence entirely and take away your chance to operate in the reader’s mind. To see how intensifiers can weaken a sentence, consider this example: “He felt very deeply about his wife’s death.” Again, a reader will likely assume the presence of feelings about the death of a spouse, but this sentence doesn’t explain what those feelings are so much as it tries to impress the reader with the magnitude of these feelings. The author of this sentence has wasted two words (the adverbs “very” and “deeply”) and also a brief moment of the reader’s time. Readers notice this. In both examples, the unnecessary adverb has damaged the author’s ability to communicate precisely. The impact that the adverbs should have provided became, instead, weakness.
In this way we can think of adverbs as a little radioactive; they can provide great power, but they can also do horrible damage. Consider this radioactive property of adverbs and proceed with caution.
Just in case you missed class the day your high school English teacher explained what adverbs are, here’s quick brushup. Adverbs tell us how, when, and where the action of the verb is happening. They describe or limit verbs, verbals, whole sentences, adjectives, or other adverbs. Sometimes they end in –ly (which means “like”), but not always: consider “I run fast.”
I recently found two examples of radioactive adverbs in one chapter of a book I’m editing:
Frank eventually saved his money and bought 20 acres of farmland on which to grow crops.
Frank saved his money and eventually bought 20 acres of farmland on which to grow crops.
Look at that “eventually.” Did Frank eventually save his money, but not right away? Or did he save his money and eventually buy the land? Two different times.
More about Frank:
Then he started his own business, the Blue Front Grocery Store, on Main Street in the heart of Riverside’s emerging business area in 1879..
Then, in 1879, he started his own business, the Blue Front Grocery Store, on Main Street in the heart of Riverside’s emerging business area.
“In 1879” is the adverb. Did Riverside’s business area emerge in 1879? Or was that when Frank started his business? It’s likely that both facts are true, but the sentence is correctly about Frank, not the area.
Final lesson for today: When asked about our health, we often say, “I feel well.” That “well” is the adverb that we think indicates the state of our health. But what it is really about is our sense of touch. “My sense of touch is highly functional.” If it’s our health, we need a predicate adjective—“I feel good.” Here’s a similar lesson from Ira Gershwin. The story goes that he was playing poker with friends and lost a hand. Someone said, “I feel badly that you lost.” Gershwin replied with a question. “Would you feel goodly if I’d won?” Yes, the verb “feel” is tricky. Before you decided to modify it with an adverb, decide what you really mean.