The Rationale Behind “-ly” Adverbs

Feb 17, 2015 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


I'd like to know your rationale for teaching the "-ly" adverb concept. In the professional writing community, adding “-ly” words is a sign of weak writing, not strong.


It was Mark Twain who famously said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”[1] It is true that scholarly writing frowns on most uses of “-ly” words. However, for developing writers, the IEW method of encouraging “-ly” adverb usage helps launch young people into thinking about their writing. Andrew Pudewa goes to great lengths explaining this in the Teaching Writing: Structure and Style Video Course with Seminar and Practicum Workbook.

The short answer is that teaching writing is a process. Where we begin is not where we end. In the teacher training, Andrew explains that we do not believe that adding, for example, an "-ly” adverb, a strong verb, and a quality adjective to every paragraph will magically create good writing. We require these and other stylistic techniques for the same reason a piano teacher requires the student to practice scales.

Now let me offer the long answer. First, let me address your concern for the "-ly” adverb. I can tell you from experience that elementary children come alive when you teach them that they can add an adverb to the sentence. Give them the freedom to just give you words at first and build word walls. When they choose words from self-generated lists and later from a list you provide, their enthusiasm for language acquisition grows naturally. As with any tool they first learn to handle, they have a tendency to overuse it.

Once they are comfortable with offering possibilities, teach them to see that not every word they think fits actually does. At first, allow them to suggest words to you, but then go through the list to determine if all the words work equally well. More importantly, explore why one word is a better choice than another. Expect them to slow down and think a word through before they offer it. For some reason the children can hear the awkwardness of a choice more easily with -ly adverbs than with other types of word choice. Does the word modify the verb, the adjective, or another adverb? Does it add to the picture in their mind? Does it make the sentence more understandable or more complicated?

After they become comfortable with this, teach your students that they can put the adverb in different places, and the sentence will read differently. The children learn a key to the English language early: Position matters. Finally, the children are carefully choosing the right word and the right place, a much-needed skill that they didn’t have before they studied the “-ly” adverbs.

As you move on through the curriculum, you start to teach the strong verb. After they understand and practice replacing weak verbs with strong ones, revisit the "-ly" adverb. They learn to recognize when an "-ly" adverb is propping up a weak verb and correct it by changing the verb to a strong one.

What would please Mark Twain? The student decides to drop the “-ly” adverb altogether. It isn’t that the “-ly” word is worth “killing,” but the student is understanding the value of tighter word economy. The young writer has learned the complex idea incrementally and is building appreciation of the English language and confidence in her or his choices.

Teaching writing is different from professional writing. The wise instructor begins with the end in mind but does not begin at the end.

[1] Mark Twain was also famous for saying, “If you see an adjective, kill it.” Which modifier he actually referred to has been lost over time.

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