Sexy Verbs: -ly adverbs

In December, I posted about Strong Verbs, promising to follow that lesson on Passive Voice with three more:

  1. -ly adverbs
  2. fuzzy verbs
  3. wuzzy verbs

An interesting blogging phenomenon emerged after that: I started getting traffic from people who googled the phrase “sexy verbs.”

Sexy verbs?! Why didn’t I think of that? Of course writers are looking for sexy verbs! We all want our writing to be sexy, to seduce the reader, to keep the reader engaged. Screw strong. We want sexy.

And if verbs drive the sentence, then that had better be where we pack in the sexy. So, I continue the Strong Verbs series in today’s post, but with a stronger, sexier name for the four-part series: Sexy Verbs.

So, how does an editor ensure a manuscript has sexy verbs that keep the reader coming back for more? Well, I scan for these four not-so-sexy pitfalls: passive voice, -ly adverbs, fuzzy verbs, and wuzzy verbs.

This post will tackle the not-so-sexy -ly adverb and how to sex it up.

What is an -ly adverb? It’s an adverb that ends in the letters, –ly. We use adverbs to spice up or further describe verbs and adjectives. They are to verbs what adjectives are to nouns. Here are a few examples:

She reclined languidly.

He awkwardly approached her .

They tumbled in bed, timidly.

As with passive voice, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about flanking your verbs with adverbs. Adverbs, including the -ly types, remain acceptable word choices and enjoy places of honor in the dictionary. But if you’re using them a lot, you might be using them to prop up not-so-sexy verbs, and they might be cluttering up your sentences.

Observe:

“Get over here,” she beckoned seductively.

While there is nothing wrong with beckoning seductively, it is a mouthful. And it might be a bit of a cliché. Try this:

“Get over here,” she purred.

Purred gets across the idea of a seductive beckoning in a shorter, more textured and descriptive way. Try another–this one’s a classic:

He moved swiftly toward the bed.

Is there a more boring verb in the world than to move? No wonder it needs an adverb to distinguish it, but to move offers a dazzling array of more specific synonyms, none of which require extra, descriptive words to get your point across:

He raced toward the bed.

He flew toward the bed.

He vaulted toward the bed.

Here’s another:

The orgasm shook her body wildly.

Can you do better than shook wildly? How about convulsed? How would you rewrite this sentence?

Or try this one:

“I’m nervous,” he said anxiously.

Experts debate the merits of a more interesting verb than said when writing dialogue. That’s usually because good dialogue ought to convey the way in which the character is speaking all on its own. How do you think this guy said, “I’m nervous,”? Boldly? Doubtful.

So you could get more concise and descriptive:

“I’m nervous,” he stuttered.

Or you could just let the dialogue do all the work:

“I’m nervous,” he said.

But either way, you don’t need to tell us that he said it anxiously.

The point is that an -ly adverb can be a red flag, your sentence waving at you and saying, “I could be more interesting and concise! I could be more sexy!”

So keep your eye peeled, and have some fun playing with your verbs. They’ll get sexier because you paid them some attention. Don’t we all?

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  1. Hey Kristy. Great post. Funny, right after I read your post, I was reading about last night’s NBA playoff games and came across this sentence. I thought it might be improved (emphasis mine, if WordPress comments allows me to use HTML)…

    Paul Pierce went down with another of his twice-monthly career-ending injuries, and Kevin Garnett(notes) needlessly took offense to Quentin Richardson rather harmlessly (though, it must have been a bit annoyingly) wandering around Pierce’s writing frame.

    Of course, they would have been able to make it more sexy simply by proofreading to notice the writing/writhing mixup. Writhing is a pretty sexy word. But what about all those adverbs?

  2. Hi Stu- That sentence certainly does wave a few -ly adverb red flags. In fact, it’s tough to even pick out the weak verbs those adverbs modify!

    Once you learn to see the red flags, it becomes tough not to see them EVERYWHERE! Thanks for keeping an eye out!

  1. May 4th, 2010
  2. May 19th, 2010
  3. April 29th, 2011

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