Adverbs are to verbs as adjectives are to nouns: They modify action words. However, they can also support other parts of speech, such as adjectives and other adverbs, as well as clauses and even entire sentences.
When writers want to add to detail in the form of answers to questions such as “Who?” “When?” and “Where?” (as well as “how much?”), they reach for adverbs.
Most adverbs end in –ly, but note that some adjectives do, too. You can tell the difference by the root word: Seriously (from serious) is an adverb, but timely (from time) is an adjective. Others end in the related forms –ways (such as sideways) and –wise (like otherwise) or consist of nouns preceded by a- (akin, for example). Others, known as comparative and superlative adverbs, end respectively in -er or -est (for instance, faster and fastest).
But adverbs, unlike other parts of speech, are diverse and flexible in their function, even in the same position: “He has arrived, obviously,” for example, is subtly distinct in meaning from “He has arrived obviously.” And they can be found anywhere in a sentence: “Slowly, he opened the door,” “He slowly opened the door,” and “He opened the door slowly” all mean the same thing. (An adverb can, of course, also immediately follow a verb: “He then walked quickly toward the lamp.”)
Adverbs, like adjectives, have gotten a bad rap for their cluttering qualities. They are ever so useful, and so applicable and adaptable that writers often employ them mindlessly and indiscriminately. But which of the three adverbs in the preceding phrase (not only mindlessly and indiscriminately but also often) must I mercilessly vaporize with the Delete key?
Don’t hesitate to apply one or more adverbs within a sentence if they serve a purpose, but do hesitate before you cast them among your prose with Brysonian abandon. Bill Bryson, the exhaustively (and exhaustingly) amusing author of The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way and other books on language, as well as volumes on history, science, and more, never met an adverb he didn’t like, but he’s earned the right to break the rules.
Consider this sentence from his latest work, At Home: A Short History of Private Life: “Eventually even he admitted that mostly he wished to build it simply for the slightly strange pleasure of making something really quite enormous.” Out of context, it may seem quite indulgent, but this is Bryson’s voice, a voice that would be fatally muted by this Hemingwayesque excision of the sentence’s adverbs: “Even he admitted that he wished to build it for the pleasure of making something enormous.”
Admonishments to avoid adverbs (and adjectives) are often misconstrued: They are not to be avoided, but they are best not employed merely to prop up weak nouns and listless sentences.