Bad adverb! Very bad …

Like perfume, the smallest application of adverbs is plenty.

  • “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King
  • “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” ~ Mark Twain
  • “In order to write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.” ~ Theodore Roethke
  • “… the beastly adverb – far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.” ~ Graham Greene
  • “It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind.” ~ Casey Schuler in Outbreak.

So, What Is an Adverb Anyway?
The name implies, “adverbs” modify verbs, i.e. add + verb = adverb. Adverbs also modify adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. Adverbs can modify just about anything in a sentence – except a noun.

Because there are almost as many adverb types as planets in our solar system, I narrowed the scope of this discussion to those adverbs that end in –ly. This includes adverbs like airily, basically, blissfully, convincingly, drowsily, flirtatiously, harshly, horribly, lovingly, quickly, restlessly, shrewdly, smilingly … like that. (For an extensive list of 3732 adverbs, go here.)

Since Adverbs are so Plentiful, Why are They Scorned?
For the fiction writer, their use of adverbs can mean the difference between a manuscript being published or getting tossed in the recycle bin. Why? Because adverbs are weak, especially those that end in –ly. Instead of adding depth, meaning, or action to a sentence, they slow it down. In fiction, adverbs can even make the reader feel insulted, rather like the author is inserting himself into the story to TELL the reader “how it is being done” or “what this really means.”

Good writers (e.g. tight writers) find the right verb, a strong verb, that will SHOW the reader what is going on. Like a magnet, strong verbs pull the reader into the story, making him or her a part of the drama. Adverbs can’t do that.

Strong Verbs: The Sign of Good Writing
The preferred method for conveying meaning, depth or activity in a sentence is by using a strong, fitting, effective verb. Sentences that contain well-chosen, action-packed, meaning-laden verbs don’t need adverbs.

One strong verb does a much better job of helping readers feel the action or meaning than a whole cosmos of adverbs. Case in point: which of the following sentences feels stronger:

1. Little Anthony ran quickly across the field.
2. Little Anthony sprinted across the field.

The second one, right? The second sentence can be summed up in two words: Anthony + sprinted. Readers have to work at visualizing the action in the first sentence, while in the second sentence, the action flows.

Here’s another example:
When the mouse slowly walked from behind the bookcase, the cat swiftly ran after it.

Yawn. See how the writer used adverbs to pump up the wimpy verbs (walk and run).

Let’s rewrite that sentence with stronger verbs:
When the mouse crept from behind the bookcase, the cat sprang after it.

See the difference? Feel the difference? Descriptive verbs pull in your readers, making them want to read what happens next, and what happens after that.

Tight Writers Show More Action with Fewer Words
Successful writers look high and low until they find the right verb that conveys the right emotion or elicits the right visualization for their readers. Good writers search for that perfect verb to convey their meaning, because the perfect verb says it all and does not need a modifier.

Many successful (i.e. published, best-selling) writers admit that as they improved their writing skills, they learned how to write with fewer adverbs.

Back to the Perfume Analogy
As a contract technical writer I often work on client sites. Along with my temporary badge, I’m handed an instruction sheet that lists “appropriate attire” and “acceptable behavior” for this workplace – like no shorts, no sandals, no halter tops, and no perfume. The first time I saw the “no perfume” restriction, I was surprised. Dabbing on a bit of perfume had always been part of my morning ritual, and now I had to leave that part out.

“Leaving that part out” is what writers need to do if they want to win writing contests, get published, and have readers who just “love” their writing. This is what successful writers learn to do with -ly adverbs: They learn to leave them out.

How Do You “Leave Them Out”?
You might be wondering how you are going to write descriptive prose if you don’t use adverbs. Find stronger verbs.

Here’s an action sentence with an adverb:
With that, Louise vehemently walked out of the room.
What’s the verb in that sentence? Walk, a mundane verb if there ever was one.

Action sentence without an adverb:
With that, Louise stamped out of the room.
With a verb like “stamp” to show how Louise left the room, the sentence doesn’t need or want an adverb. “She stamped” conveys all the mood required.

Never Use Adverbs?
I’m not advocating that you never, ever use adverbs. Just don’t use them often. Sometimes you can’t help but use an adverb because no amount of verb hunting gets you where you want to go. If you try to get around an -ly adverb and can’t, then go ahead, leave it in.

Just remember: According to many writing teachers, a good rule of thumb for adverb use in adult fiction is about one per chapter. According to some editors, one adverb per every 100 pages is about right.

Next time, more tips on writing without adverbs.
[Note: I realize that the title of this post contains one of the worst adverbs - very. This was intentional. :-) ]

Happy Writing!
(c) March 12, 2012

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How to Deflate those Inflated Phrases

Inflated hot air balloons
Effectual writers tighten their writing by transforming inflated phrases into shorter, more concise terms. This way they convey the same information with fewer words. This article examines how to recognize inflated phrases and how to deflate them.

Although inflation is great for balloons, it isn’t good for sentences. Most of today’s readers prefer the work of efficient writers who don’t waste their reading time. That’s one reason tight writers are so valuable! They keep their readers happy by replacing wordy, antiquated phrases with concise terms.

These sentences contain inflated phrases that we often hear people say, but which should not invade our writing.

(1) Next month the interns will do a study on the declining bee population.
Better: Next month the interns will study the declining bee population.

(2) Before the election Thomas will provide a summary of the survey results.
Better: Before the election Thomas will summarize the survey results.

(3) The new clerk has a tendency to misfile client applications.
Better: The new clerk tends to misfile client applications.

(4) The new policy will serve to make reductions in paper waste.
Better: The new policy will reduce paper waste.

(5) In the event that Ms Potter cannot attend the meeting, mail her a copy of the plan.
Better: If Ms Potter cannot attend the meeting, mail her a copy of the plan.

(6) The numbers shown in the spreadsheet offer the proof we need.
Better: The numbers in the spreadsheet offer the proof we need.

(7) He refuses to attend practice in spite of the fact that it would be good for him.
Better: He refuses to attend practice although it would be good for him.

(8) She earned in the neighborhood of $100,000.
Better: She earned about $100,000.

(9) Hire someone who has the ability to create flowcharts.
Better: Hire someone who can create flowcharts.

(10) Because of the fact that he stays up late, he doesn’t get enough sleep.
Better: Because he stays up late, he doesn’t get enough sleep.

Replacements for Inflated Phrases

Make each word in a sentence carry its own weight.

List of Inflated terms

Tight writing not only saves on printing costs, but increases the likelihood that your document will actually be read!

Happy Writing!
(c) February 2, 2012

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How to Fix a Dangling Participle

A dangling participle is a modifier that’s in the wrong place for the noun it is supposed to describe. This means:

  • The modifier is too far away from what it is supposed to describe, or
  • Another noun got in the way and the modifier clung to it instead of the intended noun, or
  • The noun the modifier is supposed to modify isn’t in the sentence.

San Juan RiverSome instructors, judges and editors believe dangling participles are the most egregious writing mistake because they cause readers so much grief trying to decipher the writer’s intentions.

In Other Words …
Mentally, readers expect a participle to modify the person, place or thing that immediately follows it, and when that construction isn’t logical, the writer leaves both the participle, and the reader, dangling.

So, what does this mean to the grammar-challenged? It means they need to be able to recognize and fix a dangling participle, just in case one slips into their writing. Most dangling participles are fairly easy to fix but recognizing them takes practice. Here are some tips for recognizing sentences with dangling participles:

  • Make sure the action in the sentence is actually attached to the person or thing doing it.
  • Read your draft aloud before you submit it. The stresses and pauses will help you recognize when something doesn’t quite sound right.
  • Have someone else read the draft, someone whose reading skills you trust.
  • Make sure all participial forms are immediately preceded or followed by the nouns they modify.

Let’s analyze and fix some of the sentences from the previous post:

(1) After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought out some shrivelled potatoes.

·   Modifier: After rotting in the cellar for weeks
·   What the writer wanted to modify: some shriveled potatoes
·   What is actually being modified: my brother
·   Discussion: Fix the sentence so that the brother hasn’t been rotting in the cellar.
Fix 1: My brother brought out some shrivelled potatoes that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.
Fix 2: After rotting in the cellar for weeks, the potatoes had shrivelled. (Good, although it leaves out the brother.)

(2) Looking out over his yard, the deer nibbled on his grape vines.
·   Modifier: Looking out over his yard
·   What the writer wanted to modify: Whoever was looking out over his yard (missing)
·   What is actually being modified: the deer
·   Discussion: Fix the sentence so the man who owns the yard immediately follows the modifier.
Fix 1: Looking out over his yard, Bob could see the deer nibbling on his grape vines.
Fix 2: As he looked out over his yard, the owner saw the deer nibble his grape vines.

(3) At the age of 12, her father passed away.
·   Modifier: At the age of 12
·   What the writer wanted to modify: the girl (missing)
·   What is actually being modified: her father
·   Discussion: Fix the sentence so the father doesn’t die at the age of 12.
Fix 1: At the age of 12, the girl lost her father who passed away.
Fix 2: Sarah’s father passed away when she was 12 years old.

(4) Driving south through Bluff, the San Juan River appeared on my left.
·   Modifier: Driving south through Bluff
·   What the writer wanted to modify: Whoever was driving
·   What is actually being modified: the river (which appears to be driving)
·   Discussion: Add the driver and reword the sentence so that a person is driving and not the river.
Fix 1: As I drove south through Bluff, the San Juan River appeared on my left.
Fix 2: Driving south through Bluff, I saw the San Juan River on my left.
(P.S. That’s the San Juan River in the photo above.)

Fun, huh? :-)

Attached is a PDF with the examination, description and fixes for eight more sentences. Click to open the file.  MoreFixesforDanglingParticiples

Happy Writing!
(c) January 19, 2012

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Dangling Participles May Be Funny, But …

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Dangling Participles May Be Funny, But …

Two deer eating grape vines
If ever there is a time that readers will stop and ask themselves, “Now, what was that!?” it will happen after they read a sentence with a dangling participle. But even though dangling participles are confusing and are certainly poor form, the unintended consequence can be worth a chuckle!

12 Dangling Participles
Check out these examples:

(1) After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought out some shrivelled potatoes.

(2) Looking out over his yard, the deer nibbled on his grape vines.

(3) At the age of 12, her father passed away.

(4) After running five red lights, the police officer stopped the speeding motorist.

(5) Driving south through Bluff, the San Juan River appeared on my left.

(6) After sitting in the freezer for three hours, my mother served the ice cream cake roll.

(7) Riding to the soccer field, a pothole nearly wrecked my bike.

(8) After being thoroughly beaten, the chef cooked the eggs. 

(9) Rushing from the restaurant, the crystal sugar bowl fell out of her pocket.

(10) Featuring four GB of memory, we can strongly endorse this computer’s graphic potential.

(11) Counting his money for the second time, the clock chimed 10 o’clock.

(12) Listening to Chopin, the truck moved gracefully through traffic.

Did you sense that something was wrong with these sentences as you read them? Good! With each of these sentences the subject of the participle is either missing or misplaced

Okay, what’s a participle? It is an adjective that ends with -ing (and sometimes -ed). Basically, the primary role of an adjective is to modify a noun. The problem is … adjectives (including participles) have a strong desire to cling to a noun, and this desire is so strong that they will attach themselves to the closest noun they find in the sentence, even if it is the wrong noun.

And then, what is a dangling participle? It is a participle (word or phrase) that has been left “dangling” because it isn’t clear what the participle is supposed to modify. Some times, the noun that the participle is supposed to modify has been left out.

Dangling participles may occasionally add humor to your writing, but most assuredly they will confuse the daylights out of your readers. Unless that is your goal (for some reason), I don’t think confusing your readers is a good thing …

Next time we’ll discuss what is wrong with the sentences above, how to tell that they contain dangling participles, and how to fix them!

Have a Happy New Year!
(c) December 21, 2011

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How to Fix a Dangling Participle

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How to Reduce Prolific Prepositions

This is Part 2 about the overuse of Prepositional Phrases. In today’s English, overuse of these phrases has diluted our writing and weakened its impact.

Some experienced business and technical writers view prepositional phrases as evil. I wouldn’t go that far … sometimes they are essential. But I can confirm that writers who “write tight” use as few prepositional phrases as possible. Writers who reduce their prepositional phrases consistently create tighter, clearer, more active prose, much to the delight of their audiences.

5 Tips for Replacing Prepositional Phrases
Here are some tips for reducing the number of prepositional phrases in your writing.

Tip One: Turn the object of the preposition into a direct or indirect object, thereby eliminating the wordy phrase.

As he handed the check to me, he seemed reluctant to let it go.

Delete the prepositional phrase “to me” by placing “me” after the verb.

As he handed me the check, he seemed reluctant to let it go.

While this may seem like a minor change, it is a big one to editors, publishers, instructors, and writing contest judges.

[As an aside, that sentence reminds me of a scene in the movie Ghost where Rita Mae reluctantly handed someone a multi-million dollar check. Ah, but I digress.]

Tip Two: Replace the prepositional phrase with an adverb.

The child grabbed her coat in a hurry.

Change the phrase “in a hurry” to the adverb “hurriedly” and move it next to the subject.

The child hurriedly grabbed her coat.

This places the action closer to the actor (the child), which is good. Even though some writers eschew adverbs, if you need to choose between burying an important word like “hurry” inside a prepositional phrase or transforming it into an adverb, do the latter.

Here’s another example for Tip Two:

Due to the drought, our water use is under close scrutiny.

Turn “under close” into “closely” and change the noun “scrutiny” to the verb “scrutinized.”

Due to the drought, our water use is closely scrutinized.

Remember: A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition + a noun and usually some modifiers. Although the prepositional phrase contains a noun, that particular noun cannot be the subject of the sentence. Therefore, you are free to change the object of a preposition into another part of speech when you delete the preposition.

Tip Three: Replace the prepositional phrase with an adjective or noun modifier (a noun modifying a noun).

It is the nature of humans to enjoy water.

This sentence has two prepositional phrases: “of humans” and “to enjoy water.” Get rid of the last one by placing “human” before the subject.

It is human nature to enjoy water.

You could actually modify the sentence further to read:

Enjoying water is human nature.

But that involves yet another part of speech which we will save for a future lesson. Whew … Isn’t that a relief?

Tip Four: Replace the prepositional phrase with a possessive noun. Sometimes this move may not make sense, but when it does, it is a good way to delete an unnecessary prepositional phrase.

Darren plans to supervise the training of his parrot.

Change “training of his parrot” to “parrot’s training.”

Darren plans to supervise his parrot’s training.

Another example for Tip Four:

I was confused by the plot of the movie.

Replace the second prepositional phrase with a possessive …

I was confused by the movie’s plot.

Tip Five: If the sentence is passive, transform it to active. This often eliminates one or more prepositional phrases.

There are plenty of writing tips on her website.

Whenever you see “there are” (or “there is”) find a way to reword the sentence to eliminate the passive opener. In this sentence, transform the noun from the second prepositional phrase into the subject of the sentence and add the verb “contains.” This solves the passive and wordy problems at the same time.

Her website contains plenty of writing tips.

Another example for Tip Five …

That idea is of interest to me.

Becomes …

That idea interests me.

Hey, we removed two prepositional phrases with that move! Here’s another example:

The puppy was brought to the vet by an old woman.

Becomes …

An old woman brought the puppy to the vet.

In closing

The object of a preposition holds the weakest position in the sentence. In your writing, if you find that an important word has become part of a prepositional phrase, find a way to get it out of there!

Happy Holidays!!
(c) December 4, 2011

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Plentiful Prepositions

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Plentiful Prepositions

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The English language is awash with prepositions … we could hardly communicate without them. Problems arise however when our writing sports too many prepositional phrases (examples are shown below).

What is a Preposition, anyway?

Prepositions link nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence. The most common prepositions are “to,” “in” and “of” – as shown below:

  • “Fluffy is lying on the desk.”
  • “Your brother’s cow is in our corn.
  • “She was terribly afraid of the noisy ghost.

As one of my grammar teachers explained, “A preposition includes anything you can do to a box.” That is: you can sit inside a box, you can climb beneath a box, you can stand beside it, walk across it, hang above it, sit near it, see beyond it, jump over it, lean against it, run through it, etc.

Some grammar lessons use the word “desk” instead of “box,” but either way the analogy works for most prepositions. Besides explaining where, prepositions also tell when, how or which one.  The English language contains about 150 prepositions, although most writers use around 70 of them.  Click to open a list of Common One-Word Prepositions.

Prepositional Phrases in a Nutshell

Please bear with one more bit of information about prepositions. A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, its object (basically a noun) and any modifiers for that object (including the). As you will see, a sentence can include an unlimited number of prepositional phrases, unfortunately. This sentence contains three:
A bright orange spaceship from the planet Mars landed in the middle of our front yard.

All of the prepositions in that sentence have objects, along with a few modifiers. If a preposition does not have an object, then the word is not functioning as a preposition at the time. Okay, enough with the explanations – let’s see some examples!

Proposition Overdose

Prepositional phrases dramatically increase the number of words in a sentence, a paragraph, an article or a story. Sometimes there appears no way around this increase, but much of the time a writer can replace a wordy prepositional phrase with a simple, yet more powerful, adjective or adverb. Check out the following examples.

It is a matter of utmost importance to the safety of everyone traveling on the Skyline Drive this weekend that he or she should avoid stopping anywhere along the way because of the repair work being performed on the tracks that run parallel to the highway.
(46 words – 8 prep. phrases)

This weekend no one should stop along Skyline Drive because of railroad track construction. (16 words – 2 prep. phrases)

Note: Removing or condensing rampant prepositional phrases relieves crowding, which helps readers more easily comprehend the intended message.

During the early morning hours Patrick, of the Gallagher clan, rode his green bicycle with the wobbly tire beyond the city limits and toward the white cliffs to watch the waves crash against the rocks and think about his future if he decided to enroll in the Clarence Institute.
(49 words – 9 prep. phrases)

In the early morning Patrick Gallagher rode his wobbly green bicycle to the white cliffs where he could watch the crashing waves and contemplate his enrollment in the Clarence Institute.
(30 words – 3 prep. phrases)

Note: The Rewrite tells the same story about Patrick but without the clutter. Now the reader can more easily visualize the activity.


If you plan to submit your fiction or nonfiction to a writing contest or to an editor /publisher, better scan your work for an overabundance of prepositional phrases first. Here are a few guidelines you can use for measuring the number of prepositional phrases in your writing:

  • If your text contains 20 to 25% prepositions, that’s too many.
  • If a sentence contains more than four prepositional phrases, try to transform some of the phrases into adverbs or adjectives.
  • If you find yourself reading a dull passage, or skimming over words, then the writing may suffer from preposition overdose.

Although our goal is not to eliminate prepositional phrases from our writing, we should try to reduce their numbers whenever possible … in order to make our writing tighter!

The following post offers tips for reducing the number of Prepositional Phrases in your writing.

Happy Thanksgiving!
(c) November 23, 2011

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How to Reduce Prolific Prepositions

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