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Is there any difference between these two sentences? (Adverbs)


I'm just trying to work around the whole "Adverbs are the devil" rule. Is there any difference between these two lines in regards to writing quality:

He smiled patronisingly at them


He had a patronising smile on his face

Is the second option better than the first one?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/47808. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


6 answers


Well to start with, "Adverbs are the devil" is not a rule. It is not even correct. Adverbs are a perfectly peaceable law abiding part of speech like any other.

That many people use adverbs poorly is a valid observation (thought not a rule). A reasonable rule would be, if you want to write well, learn to use adverbs appropriately.

As to your two examples, there really isn't much of a difference between them. But notice how the emphasis changes between them.

He smiled patronisingly at them

This describes an action: smiling. It is a verb. There is motion in it.

He had a patronising smile on his face

This describes a thing: a smile. It is a noun. It is static.

This difference between static and active matters a lot. There are time when you want static and times when you want active, but as a general rule, where you have the choice, the active is to be preferred unless the static produces a particular effect that you want.

And this is something that we can say in favor of the much maligned adverb. Verbs are often considered more powerful than nouns (though we can certainly take that idea too far). But verbs may need to be modified from time to time in order to describe an action precisely, and that is the job of an adverb. If trying to avoid an adverb leads to replacing a verb/adverb combination with a noun/adjective combination, chances are it has made your writing weaker.

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The reason for the "adverbs are the devil" rule is they are generally "telling", not "showing".

The reason we want to "show" instead of "tell" is that it is the writer's job to assist the imagination of the reader.

To do that, we need to appeal to their senses, primarily visual and auditory, but also senses of heat, humidity, touch, and emotional feelings of the POV characters.

In your case, a "patronizing" attitude would be better expressed by letting the reader realize it is patronizing by whatever the character said, instead of just telling us it is a "patronizing" smile. What is that actually like?

It is like an adult talking to child, it is smug, and that is something you can show us.

Yes, adverbs are a part of speech, but so are tones of voice, so are facial expressions, so is volume and the way we draw out words or clip them or say them with force. The job is to stimulate the imagination with a complete scene.

Using an adverb informs the reader of a fact, but leaves them on their own for imagining how that played out.

The adage of "show don't tell" originates in theater and film, where it can be taken more literally. A character behaves as if they are angry, they don't say "I am angry."

In print, people that argue "it is all telling" are missing the point; in print the distinction is the same as in film: Does the audience imagine a character behaving as if they are angry, or does the author just tell us, "Cindy is angry" ?

Writing that helps the reader imagine a scene and action is better than writing that doesn't. Adverbs are very weak tea in the imagination department, and a shortcut that should seldom be taken, but replacing them with another form of "telling" doesn't help the situation. This is what you have done with your two examples.

Is there any difference in this between him looking smug, or condescending, or as if he is superior? I don't think so. The acts of being patronizing would be more specific and concrete, as would the experience of being patronized, either would be a better aid to the imagination than just telling us his smile is patronizing.

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"Better" is subjective. Reading popular authors will show you that adverbs are OK--and sometimes quite good--to use. For example, it would be difficult to rephrase something like They rarely spoke in a way that was as succinct without adverbs.

To your examples, it will depend on context. And on the viewpoint character, assuming this is a limited narrative and not omniscient.

He smiled patronizingly at them might (or might not) be perfect depending on your context. But, if your story is littered with adverbs from wall to wall, then sure, you might want to find some to cut and this might be one of them.

He had a patronizing smile on his face feels wordy. Redundant. Where else would the smile be? He wore a patronizing smile might be better.

Both examples are distant, removed, external. They almost feel omniscient. If that's the goal, great! The novels I usually read would be more likely to frame the moment as an emotional response or judgment or internal experience (rather than removed and external), again depending on viewpoint. More along the lines of:

God, how she hated it when he flashed that patronizing smile.


He smiled, knowing full well it would come off as patronizing and not giving a single damn.

But, again, it will depend on context.

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Another difference between the two forms is that the first makes it clear where the patronising smile is directed, i.e. whom it's patronising.

In the second, the smile could have been there before; it could be a reaction to someone or something else (present or remembered).

If you want to avoid an adverb (and other answers have shown why that's not necessarily a useful goal), you could mention the patronising smile in relation to the people involved, e.g.:

“Don't worry your pretty little heads about it,” he told them with a patronising smile.

(Though in that example, it's probably clear from the speech alone…)

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47817. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.



If you prefer action over static images, the first one has an actor taking action -- smiling in a certain way, in the just-happened past tense. "He smiled..."

The second one is a description of a static, past tense picture, "he had a ... smile on..."

But you can avoid the adverb issue if you want to:

"He smiled at them, a patronizing smile showing no teeth..." -- for example

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47818. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.



The whole -y suffictive ending always bothered me. Reading -y endings I feel listlessly interested ):

That’s my experience.

Thank you for the question.

I like the second one. It’s an opinion, but I thinks it’s best to go with the one you like best. If you have a reason or an unexplainable feeling about wording, you’ve got some poetic strokes. My two cents mate.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47814. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.