Try this exercise: go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those “surprisingly”, “interestingly”, “very”, “extremely”, fortunately”, “on the other hand”, “almost invariably”. (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like “we may consider that”, “it is likely that”, “there is a possibility that”.)
Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?
Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.
(Of course, you may have another problem if you were writing an assignment which needs to be, say, 500 words, and you realise that the removal of these words and phrases has lost you 30%. But, for now, let’s assume that the purpose of writing is communicating, not keeping your boss or teacher happy.)
Whenever I see “surprisingly” or “interestingly” I always think: surprising to whom? Interesting to whom? Perhaps it was surprising to the author because they didn’t have the intelligence to anticipate what they then found surprising. If I am going to be surprised or interested by something I read, it will be because I find the content surprising or interesting, not because the author has told me to.
Adverbs are the dustbin of English grammatical categories. There are the –ly adverbs of manner which can be formed from almost any adjective (smugly, intelligently, squashily), the very-high-frequency time adverbs (soon, often, yesterday), and then a ragbag of hedges (maybe, possibly, probably), emphasizers (very, extremely, absolutely), sentence adverbs (however, consequently, funnily (enough)) and extreme horrors like just and quite which, depending on many precise characteristics of context and placement, can mean anything from “very much” to “scarcely at all”, with many deviations in between.
The time adverbs I allow. The hedges I forgive, after careful consideration, if the sentence would be untrue without them, but this does not happen as often as you might think. Compare “blips are blops” with “almost invariably blips are blops”. Do they say anything different? Not really, because the first is not claiming that all blips are blops; it is silent on that question. The sentence adverbs are wildly overused by many authors. (For a more measured discussion, in the context of language learning and of academic English, see Paquot (2010). The reason may be that they are taught, and students learn to use them – and then never stop using them.)
Many adverbs of stance – emphasisers, hedges and so forth – have a job to do in dialogue, where they are used to manage the relationship between the speakers, indicating who is senior and who is junior, who wants to be friendly and who wants to assert themself, and so forth. But these factors do not apply when we write. Cut them out.
As for –ly adverbs of manner, they often put things clumsily. Whoops! They are often just clumsy.
Fifteen years ago I attended a talk by a science journalist, who said, out of the blue, “an adverb is for the linguistic dwarf unable to reach for the correct verb”. My goodness it stuck. (He had some other good advice, too: “The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.” I traced that one to G. K. Chesterton. I never did trace the dwarf quote.)
Now is the New Year, time of resolutions. Make one now. No adverbs.
Paquot, M. Academic Vocabulary in Learner Writing. Continuum, London and New York, 2010.