How to use adverbs effectively

Adverbs convey information about how things happen, as well as when, where and to what extent. As the name suggests, they modify verbs – but they can also modify adjectives, other adverbs and whole sentences, writes Cathy Relf.

For example, in the sentence ‘I need to see you urgently,’ the adverb urgently tells us about the verb need. But in ‘Recently, we’ve been incurring a lot of delays,’ the adverb recently tells us about the whole sentence.

However, informative and descriptive though adverbs certainly are, you should still use them with thought and moderation – like all language. We tend to use a lot of fairly meaningless adverbs in conversation, to emphasise certain points, create rhythm and elicit empathy from the listener. But good, clear writing is more about communicating your meaning efficiently than banging your point home – and that means only using adverbs that add genuine, useful information. Whenever possible, show, don’t tell.

Some adverbs are used so frequently in speech that they have become little more than verbal tics, and these are the ones you should be particularly suspicious of if they turn up in your writing. Below are five such words, each of which you should sternly interrogate before deciding whether to grant it a place in your final draft.

Interestingly

Interestingly, many writers like to introduce facts with the word interestingly. Interestingly, it’s often followed by something that … isn’t. If you have an interesting observation to share, let it speak for itself. And if you have a dull but necessary fact to convey, don’t try to pep it up by calling it interesting. You’ll lose your readers’  trust, as well as their attention. Here’s what happened when we asked a group of editors on Twitter how they felt about sentences beginning with ‘interestingly’. Warning: it’s not pretty.

Use it: in speeches, to create a moment of suspense before delivering a genuinely interesting point.
Don’t use it: to add interest where there is none.

Significantly

Much like interestingly, the thing about significantly is that most truly significant things can speak for themselves. Pinpoint the reason that you know your fact is significant – do you have a statistic, for example? If so, can you use that instead, and let the reader be the judge of its significance? Instead of ‘UK tourists pay significantly less for petrol’, why not ‘UK tourists pay 8.6 per cent less for petrol’?

Sometimes, however, you’ll have expertise that your reader isn’t privy to, meaning you may be able to see significance where they can’t. In this case, you can use the word to signal that a particular piece of information you’re conveying is significant, and then follow up on how, or why, in the next sentence. You’re basically telling your reader ‘hold on to this bit; you’ll understand why in a minute’. Used like this, significantly can be a useful tool for creating reader engagement.

Also, it’s worth noting that in statistics,  significant has a specific meaning, with the  significance level being the amount of evidence required to indicate that a result did not happen by chance.

Too often, however, significant is simply used to create persuasive, attention-grabbing sentences that gloss over an absence of evidence. For example, see this headline from the Daily Mail: Less than 6 hours’ sleep significantly increases risk of a stroke even if you are fit and healthy. The article gives no information about the size of the increased risk – it could be one per cent higher or 100 per cent higher. The reader is left none the wiser regarding the level of significance, and the same is probably true of the writer.

Use it: to highlight facts that the reader may not immediately realise are significant.
Don’t use it: as a substitute for real information, or to make something seem more important than it is.

Obviously

Before you use obviously or clearly, ask yourself three things: firstly, if it’s obvious to everyone, do you need to make the point at all?

Take, for example, the introductory sentence to this article in The Hindu:

‘Quite obviously, the Reserve Bank of India, while reviewing the credit policy — the mid-quarter review is scheduled for later on June 18 — would take note of the recent developments affecting the economy.’

Once you unpick the sentence, it is obvious that a bank would consider economic developments when reviewing its credit policy. But did they need to say so? After all, if it’s obvious, is it news?

Secondly, if it’s not obvious to your readers, how are they going to feel? Foolish, perhaps – or, worse, patronised. And, thirdly, are you using obviously to discourage questioning? (After all, who would argue with something that has been declared universally obvious?) If so, take a moment to think about why you’re using such a defensive tactic. It may be that there are holes in your own argument.

Use it: as little as possible.
Don’t use it: if it’s likely that the information will not be obvious to some readers.

Actually

Actually is a useful discourse marker in speech. We use it for emphasis, surprise, contrast or correction (‘we thought it would be a good move, but it was actually a mistake’, ‘no, I live in Hove, actually’, ‘he was actually trying to take all the credit himself’).

However, in writing, actually should be used sparingly. If you’re someone who writes like a demon in first drafts, it’ll often end up in there because your writing tumbles out structured like speech. It’s actually a great way to get a first draft on to paper, but when you go back to edit it and actually look at the contribution each word is making, that’s the time to question whether they’re actually adding any value or clarity.

In the sentence above, we’d delete the first two actuallys, but keep the third, which subtly intensifies the action of adding value.

Use it: when it adds a useful hint of contrast or surprise to the sentence.
Don’t use it: just because you would when speaking.

Literally

This is, without doubt, the adverb with the most enemies. There are whole social media accounts devoted to pointing out inappropriate uses of literally. See @literallypolice on Twitter and The Literally Tsar on Facebook, if you don’t believe us.

The problem with literally is that it has developed a colloquial meaning that is the opposite of its literal, or dictionary, meaning. Often, when people say literally, they mean its opposite, figuratively. The footballer Jamie Redknapp has a particular fondness for the colloquial usage of the word, according to this Guardian article (‘he had to cut back inside on to his left, because he literally hasn’t got a right foot’).

Despite all this fuss, only the most pedantic person would interrupt you in the middle of a story to question whether you were ‘literally shaking like a leaf’ or ‘literally chomping at the bit’. But readers are pickier than listeners, and sentences such as these seem more incongruous in black and white.

So, just to be completely literal about it, here are the definitions from Collins:

Literal: in exact accordance with or limited to the primary or explicit meaning of a word or text.
Figurative: of the nature of, resembling, or involving a figure of speech; not literal; metaphorical.

In short, if it didn’t really, literally happen, don’t use literally.

Use it: to describe things that really happened.
Don’t use it: for metaphors or exaggerated expressions.

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