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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    "Is X better than Y" is a formulation that is bound to raise "opinion-based" flags in people's heads. But the question you're really asking - when and whether adverbs are the devil, and why - that's a good question. Maybe you should stress that a bit more. Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:02
  • Could you also expand on the "in regards to writing quality" bit? I see that you're trying to make this a writing question and not one better suited for English.SE, but right now it's just a straight up grammar question, which we try to discourage (never mind that I'm glad to see that tag inching up to 200 questions). If you rephrase the question to ask not which is "better" but how these differences change the tone of the writing (with at least one more example please), you're more likely to keep this question open. Thanks!
    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:07
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    Adverbs are the devil is so hypocritical. Anything that alters or enhances the verb is an adverb, so both are 'technically' the devil by that school of thought. Fact is, they always mean 'ly'-adverbs, and even then they aren't taken out entirely. Try instead to minimize adverbs by choosing 'more powerful' verbs, which isn't possible in this case. As such, follow the rule or don't. If you're confident in your writing, no one will much care (or they'll criticize you either way).
    – Fayth85
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:15
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    @Fayth85: I'm not sure about "isn't possible in this case." There are myriad ways to retell that story. Maybe he "smirked" at them. Maybe he says or does something to demonstrate his condescension more directly. Maybe, by this point in the story, the audience already knows he's a jerk, and you don't have to remind them at all.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 3:49
  • @Kevin 'to smile patronizingly' isn't 'smirk'. Smirk comes with many connotations, arrogance, playfulness, teasing. Patronizing isn't one of them, that I'm aware of. As such, 'not possible', because I am unaware of a verb that means 'smile patronizingly'. I would have to alter the writer's intention, which isn't what the question is.
    – Fayth85
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 18:58

5 Answers 5


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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    In this case: Static may connote laziness or sheer disinterest (he is too lazy, or cares too little about "them," to even bother putting his condescension into words), which may be exactly what you want to suggest. Or maybe not; it all depends on the context.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 3:45
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    Absolutely. It is all about the effect you want to create.
    – user16226
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 3:58
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    Good example. People also sometimes advise fewer adjectives, but The smile on his face patronised looks worse to me.
    – J.G.
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 5:47
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    Thee is another thing against the static. The latter does not reveal why-when he smiled or at whom the smile was targeted. Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 13:19
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    While the static/active distinction is valid, I was caught more on the use of direction - a smile "on his face" is about him, how we see him, a smile aimed "at them" is directed, it is about them and how he sees them.
    – Megha
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 6:02

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 better aid to the imagination than just telling us his smile is patronizing.

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    Another point to remember is that, sometimes, you want to switch to diegesis for a bit. But you should be doing it deliberately, and for good reasons (e.g. "This part of the story has nothing to do with plot or character development and is, frankly, boring, but if I cut it entirely, the audience won't understand X"), not just because "it's easier."
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 3:52
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    I think this way of looking at it really helps one to know if an adverb works or not. Sometimes you need to be building an image/impression, but other times you may need just to convey something and get on to more important content - then an adverb might be an effective shorthand for something which otherwise might require far more detail to express.
    – Joe
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 9:39

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…)


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.


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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