Hold the Adjectives – Please!

I’ve noticed lately that my writing has become heavy with modifiers – and yes it can be argued that use of modifiers is a part of individual style and style is always somewhat subjective – especially when blogging or writing fiction but it’s come to the point where I think my use of modifiers needs modifying and possibly yours does too.

4 Rules for Modifiers

Rule 1: The Verbal Law of Gravity

The danger is that too many adjectives can make your writing seem inconsequential. Compare these two sentences:

  • The linen, embroidered tablecloth was covered with sticky, golden maple syrup, with globs of congealing oatmeal, with dots of buttery toast crumbs, with streaks of yellowy egg yolk, and bloody-looking ketchup.
  • The tablecloth was a mess, its embroidery trapped syrup, oatmeal, egg, crumbs and ketchup like tomato blood.

Which sentence seems stronger? more readable? Likely you chose the second, which contains only one real adjective: tomato. The commas fragment the first sentence forcing you to stop and add new elements to the picture in your mind.

In English, parts of speech have different weights. Nouns and verbs are “heaviest” because no sentence would be complete without them and they have more gravitational pull on the reader’s mind. Adjectives and adverbs are not necessary to the formation of the sentence and are more lightweight. By relying on modifiers to create your picture, instead of nouns and verbs, your writing become light, fluffy and trivial. This doesn’t mean you should never use adjectives or adverbs but rather to use them sparingly to give impact to a sentence.

Rule 2: The Lexical Constitution

Not all adjectives and adverbs are created equal. An unusual modifier carries more weight than the expected one. In fact, it can often add more impact to a sentence than a noun or a verb.

In the example above the most interesting and “heaviest” word in the second sample sentence is tomato, by describing ketchup as tomato blood. That’s because it’s unexpected in an otherwise ordinary, domestic description.

The same principle holds for adverbs. In the sentence “I hate you,” he said angrily, the adverb is extra baggage. But in “I hate you,” he said cheerfully, it’s unexpected and thus has more weight and impact. In fact, unless and adverb following “said” gives and unexpected slant to the dialogue, don’t use it.

Rule 3: The Economics of Diction

Often you can replace an adjective or adverb by choosing a more precise noun or verb. Consider these two examples:

  • The starlet walked shakily to the door, her ruffle and lace clothing fluttering around her clumsily. She held the precious bottle of alcoholic liquid protectively against her trembling chest.
  • The starlet stumbled to the door, dress quivering, the precious bottle of Dom Pérignon clutched to her chest.

In the second sentence the image is stronger, the word count is cut in half and the remaining adjective stands out more.

“The most valuable of our talents is that of never using two words where one will do.” – Thomas Jefferson

Rule 4: The Biology of Qualifiers

If unnecessary modifiers weaken prose, then qualifying modifiers weaken even necessary modifiers – like leeches feeding on leeches.

Qualifiers modify adjectives and adverbs: very pretty, somewhat talented, a bit late. Do it too often and your reader will be fairly certain you’re a little unsure you actually know what you really might be saying.

Some Definitions

modifier
–noun
1. a person or thing that modifies.
2.Grammar.
a. a word, phrase, or sentence element that limits or qualifies the sense of another word, phrase, or element in the same construction.
b. the immediate constituent of an endocentric construction that is not the head.
adjective
–noun
1. Grammar. any member of a class of words that in many languages are distinguished in form, as partly in English by having comparative and superlative endings, or by functioning as modifiers of nouns, as good, wise, perfect.
adverb
–noun
1. Grammar. any member of a class of words that in many languages are distinguished in form, as partly in English by the ending -ly, or by functioning as modifiers of verbs or clauses, and in some languages, as Latin and English, also as modifiers of adjectives or other adverbs or adverbial phrases, as very, well, quickly. Adverbs typically express some relation of place, time, manner, attendant circumstance, degree, cause, inference, result, condition, exception, concession, purpose, or means.

Learn More

A few English grammar resources around the web…
Guide to Grammar and Writing
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips

Comments

  1. Yay for better writing! Good stuff.

  2. This is great, Merlene, thank you. Very helpful. The examples are telling. (Oh man, I just read what I wrote saying to myself “Any Adjectives? QUICK. ELIMINATE.” :)

    One of the great things about forums like Twitter is that they force you to be conscious of the extra baggage. When I first got on Twitter, I found myself shrtening wrds by riduculous abbrt'ing. But then: “Oh. Shorten at the core. Write better.”

    Finally, I just wanted to add my own hint — not about adjectives but about pronouns. I discovered that if I'm writing when I'm stressed out, my pronouns are a mess — it gets hard to follow what I'm saying. Now I go back and look at each pronoun to make sure it is clear to the reader what I'm talking about. Heard on Twitter: “Clarity comes from truly caring that the other person understands.”

  3. This is great, Merlene, thank you. Very helpful. The examples are telling. (Oh man, I just read what I wrote saying to myself “Any Adjectives? QUICK. ELIMINATE.” :)

    One of the great things about forums like Twitter is that they force you to be conscious of the extra baggage. When I first got on Twitter, I found myself shrtening wrds by riduculous abbrt'ing. But then: “Oh. Shorten at the core. Write better.”

    Finally, I just wanted to add my own hint — not about adjectives but about pronouns. I discovered that if I'm writing when I'm stressed out, my pronouns are a mess — it gets hard to follow what I'm saying. Now I go back and look at each pronoun to make sure it is clear to the reader what I'm talking about. Heard on Twitter: “Clarity comes from truly caring that the other person understands.”

  4. You misused the word “it’s” during your adjectives example. There should be no apostrophe.

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