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Vocab activities for your classroom

Adverbs: A Horror Story?

"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs."
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000)

When developing writers are striving to be more "descriptive" and vivid in their creative writing, they often turn to adverbs as one of their enhancement tools (understandably — since they are words that are intended to modify or qualify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.) However, when students begin to learn some of the more sophisticated standards for writing, teachers often advise them to avoid adverbs and to instead reach for powerful verbs that "show" instead of "tell" about their subjects and their actions.

We suggest teaching the cautionary use of adverbs with the following methods.

Model the revision process:

Instead of merely 'telling' your students to avoid unnecessary adverbs (lest they end up in hell according to King), model the revision of an adverb-laden description as a whole-class activity.

For example:

The tiger stealthily followed its prey, hoping to make a meal of the wild boar. The boar, sensing its doom, quickly ran away and carefully hid in its burrow.

Once you have presented the students with such a description, guide them through a collective revision:

  1. Identify the adverbs. In this case it's easy; all the adverbs in this description are wearing the suffix that screams ADVERB: "ly" (i.e., stealthily, quickly, carefully).
  2. Assess the adverbs' roles. In this case, each of the adverbs is modifying a verb (i.e., followed, ran, and hid).
  3. With the aid of the Visual Thesaurus, try to find a stronger verb to replace each of the weak "adverb-verb" pairings.

For example, if you click on the first meaning of "run away" in its Visual Thesaurus word map's meaning list, your students can see the different synonym options and weigh which one best fits the context of the description.

(In this case, guiding students to replace the unnecessarily wordy "quickly ran away" with a simple "fled" seems to be the best choice.)

One possible revision of the description could read:

The tiger stalked its prey, hoping to make a meal of the wild boar. The boar, sensing its doom, fled to hide in its burrow.

Don't limit developing writers with "absolutes":

An important message when teaching writing is that there are no absolutes. Instructing students to never ever use an adverb is as silly as forbidding sentences that begin with a conjunction. Rules can be broken, if the payoff is worth it.

Just because the best-selling horror writer Stephen King associates adverbs with perdition doesn't mean that students should completely avoid their use (note the use of completely!).

Read aloud this excerpt from "The Tell-Tale Heart" and allow your students to hear how Edgar Allan Poe — the Father of American horror writing — uses adverbs for effect:

And every night about midnight I turned the latch of his door and opened it oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern all closed, closed so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly, very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this? And then when my head was well in the room I undid the lantern cautiously -- oh, so cautiously -- cautiously (for the hinges creaked), I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1843
"The Tell-Tale Heart"

Wow. It will be hard for your students to ignore the power of the adverb in Poe's passage. You might even read the Poe excerpt again omitting the phrases containing adverbs. What has been lost in this second reading? How did Poe's repetition of adverbs in the original version lend a sense of heightened suspense to the description?

It seems the best way to teach the cautionary use of adverbs is to provide students with rich examples and to let them be the judge. Creative writing is a subjective art, and students might find that following absolute rules may be a far riskier road than using their own discretion and voice as the ultimate guide.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 10th 2010, 6:49 AM
Comment by: eleanor M. (ottawa Canada)
Poe decorates with adverbs . Visual artists decorate with informal forms. Composers decorate with trills. All add emphasis and life in life to their work
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I agree that those adverbs served Poe well, but if someone were to try that today, it would almost guarantee a rejection letter. Chapter 2, on adjectives and adverbs, in Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, is an effective tour through the perils of misusing those kinds of words. Still, I like what you said at the end: adverbs need not be avoided wholeheartedly. Sometimes--even if most of the time they just contaminate an effective sentence--they work. So it's healthy to add to the long series of warnings against adverbs in writing how-to books this comment by the renowned writing teacher John Garner: "adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox" ( On Becoming a Novelist, p. 22).
Saturday August 21st 2010, 12:02 AM
Comment by: tmack. (Nashville, TN)
I loved this article. It's a terrific lesson on adverbs, on word choice, and on how to use the vt to strengthen writing. I'm always in favor of focusing on how different writers use words effectively and by steering away from absolutes, you encourage critical thinking.

Really excellent.
Saturday August 21st 2010, 12:06 AM
Comment by: tmack. (Nashville, TN)
By the way, Poe was about rhythmn so his use of adverbs gave him the cadence, often the emphasis his work is known for.

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