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I understand that "proper English" is vague, but what I mean is, are adverbs to be avoided in scholarly writing? For example, let's say that I am wanting to publish an article in scholarly magazine for college English professors. Would the readers of that magazine generally look down upon a frequent use of adverbs as "fluff."

The reason I ask is because my English professor showed our class the "Hemingway Application." According to hemingwayapp.com, the purpose of the program is to make your writing "bold and clear." One of the ways it supposedly does this is highlighting the adverbs so that you can replace them with "verbs with force." So, what is the problem with adverbs, and what would be an example of a verb "with force?" Lastly, could you please use an example where an adverb is used, then replace it with a verb "with force."

  • This might be better at Writing. – curiousdannii Apr 2 '15 at 7:21
  • Many more writers overuse adverbs than underuse adverbs. Thus, for most people the advice "avoid adverbs" is better than "use more adverbs". But see this blog post. Better advice might be: "avoid nouns", because overuse of nouns is commoner than overuse of adverbs. – Peter Shor Apr 2 '15 at 10:40
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    @PeterShor - Actually, the main fault of many writers is the overuse of words. – Hot Licks Apr 2 '15 at 12:16
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Your first question is: What is the problem with adverbs? There are in fact three main problems.

The first problem is that they are often unnecessary. This is what Zinsser in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (p68) writes:

Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy your reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly; "blare" connotes loudness. Don't write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there's no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

The second problem is that they can make you appear vacillating. This is what Pinker in The Sense of Style (p43) says about "compulsive hedging":

Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply that they are not willing to take a stand behind what they are saying, including almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue.

(Pinker could have added arguably to this list of weasel words.)

The third problem is that intensifying adverbs such as very or incredibly can in fact dilute the strength of the verb or adjective they modify. Here is Pinker again (p45):

Paradoxically, intensifiers like very, highly, and extremely also work like hedges. They not only fuzz up a writer's prose but can undermine his intent. If I'm wondering who pilfered the petty cash, it's more reassuring to hear Not Jones; he's an honest man than Not Jones; he's a very honest man. The reason is that unmodified adjectives and nouns tend to be interpreted categorically: "honest" means "completely honest", or at least "completely honest in the way that matters here"" (just as Jack drank the bottle of beer implies that he chugged down all of it, not just a sip or two). As soon as you add an intensifier, you're turning an all-or-none dichotomy into a graduated scale.

Your second question is: What would be an example of a verb "with force"?

You could write: Jones produced arguments and evidence to prove that Smith's claim was false. Or you could use the strong verb refute: Jones refuted Smith's claim. The verb refute implies 'producing arguments and evidence to prove that a claim is false'.

Your third request is for an example where an adverb can be replaced with a verb "with force."

Instead of "She quickly looked over the document for errors", you could write: "She skimmed the document for errors", since skimming implies quick reading.

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    What Pinker et al. don’t mention is of course that (a) hedging is not restricted to adverbs (there are hedging adjectives, nouns, and verbs, too), and (b) hedging is a vital and indispensible part of academic writing. Most academic writing would be rejected outright as unacademical speculation if you got rid of all the hedging—and much of it would be pure nonsense, even. Compare hedging “While there is no direct evidence, it seems likely that X is partially responsible for this reaction” to hedge-free (nonsensical) “While there is no direct evidence, X is responsible for this reaction”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 2 '15 at 11:40
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    @Janus, I agree that hedging is often unavoidable, and in fact Pinker's position is more nuanced than is suggested in the short extract I provide above. After a three-page discussion he concludes: "It's not that good writers never hedge their claims. It's that their hedging is a choice, not a tic." Earlier he has stated: "Sometimes a writer has no choice but to hedge a statement, Better still, the writer can qualify the statement, that is spell out the circumstances in which it does not hold, rather than leave himself an escape hatch or being coy as to whether he really means it." – Shoe Apr 2 '15 at 14:16
  • Ah, that sounds much more reasonable (my et al. addition was because I have in the past read far too many Strunk & White-like expoundings on such hedgings that were anything but nuanced). I’d say that’s a worthy addition to the answer itself. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 2 '15 at 14:17
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As per this study, it has been found that overuse of adverbs can distract the reader and detract academic writing. Another resource is this one.

Here are 50 adverbs to avoid in academic writing.

And here's a site showing examples of how you can replace adverbs with better words.

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    Looking briefly at that study, it showed nothing more than that social scientists use adverbs more than mathematicians. To reach the conclusion in your first sentence, you would also need the fact that social science writing is harder to read that mathematical writing, which the author seems to take for granted. Being a mathematician, and knowing how many badly-written math papers there are, I am very skeptical of this claim. – Peter Shor Apr 2 '15 at 10:35
  • @PeterShor I added another link. – Mamta D Apr 2 '15 at 11:25
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Practical advice for ensuring that your sentences are alive: Use forceful verbs—replace long verb phrases with a more specific verb. For example, replace 'She argues for the importance of the idea' with 'She defends the idea.'

https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/revising-drafts/

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