Monday, August 8, 2016

How not to use Adjectives

A popular post from March 2010. 

by Josi S. Kilpack

We all know that adjectives are words that modify a noun, right? Beyond that there don't seem to be too many rules about how to use them, or so we think. Imagine, however, reading a book with the following description:

The moon was so beautiful tonight, lighting up the fragrant, wet, green foliage so that it practically glowed, casting a bright, white, translucent shadow across all the crisp, straight lines surrounding me as I stood within the wonderful woods I have always loved.

Let's not get into how lame this sentence is overall, lets just focus on the adjectives--the modifiers used in this one horribly run on sentence. There are two basic types of adjectives, broad and specific--this sentance uses both.

Broad: beautiful, wonderful
Specific: wet, green, bright, white, translucent, crisp, straight

Broad means that the definition is, well, broad. Beautiful can relate to so many things and is very subjective; what I think is beautiful might not be beautiful to you. Same with wonderful, pleasant, dumb, awful and other modifiers that have such a large range of use, that it really doesn't define a noun all that well. Because of their ambiguous nature, they 'tell' rather than show. They work well in dialogue, but when broad adjectives are used too often in the actual narrative of the story, it comes across as poor writing, showing the author's lack of vocabulary. The reader easily disconnects with the story because broad adjectives tend to keep them at a distance, not allowing them to hone in on the details of the story.

Specific means that the definition is, well, specific (I know, I'm so helpful). When I say 'wet paint' you understand what I mean, there is nothing broad about that word and it 'shows' what I'm trying to say. Typically a specific adjective is better than a broad one because the reader can better determine exactly what you mean. However, too many of ANY kind of adjective comes across as clumsy and descriptive overkill. "...a bright, white, translucent shadow" is too much and makes it look as though I don't know the right word, so I'm using all of them. It's relatively rare to need more than one adjective when modifying anything.

Mark Twain had this to say:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Back to my lame sentence--do we need, bright, white, or translucent when we already said the moon glowed? Do we need crisp and straight to describe the lines? Do we need to be told the moon is beautiful when we're describing the glow? Can we get a sense of how wonderful the woods are without saying they're wonderful? Most of the time, we can. For instance:

The moon lit up the foliage so that it practically glowed, casting a translucent shadow across the lines surrounding me as I stood within the woods I have always loved.

Still a relatively lame sentence, but with only one of the adjectives used in the original. Whenever you go to modify a noun, make sure it needs to be modified. If it does, work hard to get the best word to do the work.

A few other tips:

  • Get a Thesaurus and use it
  • Beware of using words that are too obscure
  • Pay attention to words already pre-modified, like Mountain (we know it's big, large, huge), ant (we know it's small, tiny), Tree (we know it's green), Flower (we know it's fragrant and beautiful)
  • Whenever tempted to use more than one adjective, look harder to find one adjective that says both things
In the case of adjectives, less really is more, so choose wisely.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Adjectives are one of the most hotly debated issues in the online writing community, but I think you've done a very good job of summing up the positives.

I think that broad adjectives in the narrative can be useful for close third and first person povs, because they express a character sentiment, leaving the reader free to decide whether or not they agree. But in an omniscient pov, the reader might be put off if they disagree with such an "objective" judgment.

Specific adjectives, or "narrow" to keep to the analogy, are definitely better for evocative scenes, and also for objective commentary—aka “description”. Mainly because they tend to eliminate not only the vagueness, but the value judgment of what they are describing.

Finally, per the moon example, I think it's better to avoid using too many adjectives at all. For descriptees(is that a word?) that we are all familiar with, it's quite often better to let the reader create their own image than to impose the narrator's. Unless again, we are dealing with close third or first pov, in which case biased commentary is more acceptable and even valuable as a characterization technique.

Curtis said...

Good post, Josi

Krista said...

Valuable post! I love Mark Twain's quote, too. Sometimes I think writers get nervous when they hear, "No adverbs! No adjectives!" But this is not intimidating. Be selective, use moderation.

Carolyn V. said...

Thanks for the great advice! Those pesky adjectives! =)

Heather M said...

How about:

The moon lit the wet, green foliage so that it glowed, and all the lines stood out crisp in the moonlight around me as I stood in the woods I loved.

I think color adjectives are the exception; even if I know the tree is green, it makes me happy just to see the word green. (Or blue, or yellow, or red.) I also think adj's like crisp and wet are the best kind--vivid and tactile. Also I didn't mess with the shadow b/c I don't know how a shadow can be translucent or bright!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there aren't some genres that call for more adjectives than others?

It seems they are almost a necessary evil to some vampire, horror, or romance stories - and way too fun in some dramatic readings.

porcelaine said...

Great post. It falls in line with the things I've been studying regarding grammar and sentence structure. Many feel it's boring or something we're well acquainted with, but I've found the refresher quite helpful.

Reciting what's written is another big one. It places you in the reader's position and calls attention to things that might go unnoticed when you're on the other side.

Nishant said...

I think you've done a very good job of summing up the positives.
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Robby K said...

That revised version seems to lack something though. I think I prefer Heather M's revision. But the post makes sense. Now if only I could control myself...

Anonymous said...

"The moon lit up the foliage so that it practically glowed, casting a translucent shadow across the lines surrounding me as I stood within the woods I have always loved."
How about:

As the moon rose the foliage around me transformed to that of a glowing being, the heart of the forest. Through this lens of love the forest transformed ever the more as of the translucent shadows enhanced the lines of each leaf.