In response to the death of Elmore Leonard the New York Times has posted a list of writing tips he composed back in 2001. Among them is the following:

To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

This is not the first time I have read of professional writers discouraging the use of adverbs. While technically (adverb!) appropriate English, why are they treated with such disdain, and what makes a good adverb substitute?


A Grammar Girl post, How to Eliminate Adverbs, notes:

Adverbs find themselves much maligned because they're often redundant or awkwardly placed.

In the next sentence, it notes that writer Stephen King likens adverbs "to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow."

Rather than substitute, the Grammar Girl article recommends pruning adverbs, especially those that are repetitive ("She smiled happily"), used carelessly as intensifiers (such as "extremely" or "definitely"), or used alongside verbs of attribution ("she said angrily").

Read the article.


Hemingway also hated (or at least avoided) adjectives and adverbs.

Homework: find an Elmore Leonard book, find a few pages at random, and see how many adverbs there are. (I'll do that, too.)

Elmore's style - and Hemingway's - is terse and sparse. Extra adverbs would only slow down the action and change the mood.

But it's too much of a generalization to say that "professional writers discourage adverbs". Writers like Hemingway and Elmore prefer unvarnished prose; other writers use them as needed to amplify what's going on, to tell how the characters moved.

PS: You can find links to the rest of Elmore's tips by searching for that sentence. The rest of what he said (just before it) was "4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' .

The extreme case of violating this principle is in the "Tom Swift" books (popular in the early 1900s). Search for "Tom Swifties". Example:

"Who would want to steal modern art?" asked Tom abstractedly.

Almost every "said Tom" was followed by a catchy (but unnecessary) adverb.


Leonard's fourth rule reads:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said' ... .

You can see why breaking this rule might be considered a mortal sin if you read the following passage from a Guardian review of JK Rowling's The Order of the Phoenix:

Here, from page 324 of The Order of the Phoenix, to give you a typical example [of the most pedestrian descriptive prose], are six consecutive descriptions of the way people speak. "...said Snape maliciously," "... said Harry furiously", " ... he said glumly", "... said Hermione severely", "... said Ron indignantly", " ... said Hermione loftily". Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you're one of the many adults who don't have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents.


  • I see Voldemort's got at the Grauniad. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 21 '13 at 23:04
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    From Pride and Prejudice: "His guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same," said Elizabeth angrily. Obviously, Jane Austen was a hack writer. – Peter Shor Sep 13 '14 at 18:22

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