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