A is for Adjectives

I haven't blogged for some time and need to get back into the routine. I gave it some thought about how to go about this.  I decided to concentrate on 'writing' topics for a while, going through the alphabet, with guests giving their views and ideas.
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This first post is A is for adjectives and I'm delighted to have Paula Martin on board to talk about this. As well as being an excellent author, Paula is particularly keen on the correct use grammar and punctuation. 

When I was at school (a long time ago!), my English teachers insisted we used lots of adjectives to make our writing more descriptive. In contrast, writers are warned against the overuse of adjectives.

Various reasons are given for this: too many adjectives give your novel a ‘purple prose’ tint, or clutter the text with unnecessary modifiers, or give the impression that the writer cannot quite find the right word.

Mark Twain said: "As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."
The question is – which adjectives should you strike out?

First there are the redundant adjectives – the tiny kitten (aren’t all kittens tiny?), the large mountain (ever seen a small mountain?), the narrow alley (an alley IS a narrow passage), the cold snow (if snow wasn’t cold, it would be water!). Omit the adjective if the noun is self-explanatory.

Secondly, there are the adjectives which, with their nouns, can be replaced with a much more descriptive word e.g. ‘a downpour flooded the streets’ instead of ‘heavy rain flooded the streets’, or ‘the witch cackled’ instead of ‘the witch gave an evil, sharp laugh’.

There are also some adjectives which have become almost meaningless and should be avoided (except in dialogue), including wonderful, lovely, pretty, stupid, foolish, pleasant, comely, horrid – and the obvious one, nice.

However, a story without any adjectives could end up as very clinical and dry. As with most things, moderation is the key. We are not advised to avoid adjectives altogether, but to avoid overusing them.

Eliminating all adjectives would be as big a mistake as overusing them. Adjectives can clarify meaning and add colour to our writing, and can be used to convey the precise shade of meaning we want to achieve. We should save them for the moments when we really need them and then use them selectively – and sparsely. Too often we feel the need to beef up our nouns in an effort to get our point across.

Compare: The dark, dreary house had an empty, suspicious feel to it, the thick air stale and sour with undefined, scary kitchen odors. Are all these adjectives necessary?
A tighter, more dramatic description would be: The house had an empty feeling to it, the air stale with undefined kitchen odors.

Use adjectives only to highlight something the noun can’t highlight. We’ve already seen that the ‘narrow alley’ has a redundant adjective, but what about the ‘dark alley’ or the ‘filthy alley’? Not all alleys are dark or filthy so in these examples, the adjectives are adding something that is not already shown by the noun. This is the main reason for using an adjective.

And now I’m off to take my own advice, and look through my ms. for redundant adjectives!

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  1. Adjectives in the way you described them above generally don;t bother me; it's when they are misused that they do.I have read far too many works that use the wrong adjectives:"Landing hard on a soft bed", "She awakened with a start and spoke drowsily into the phone", "a down-on-his-heels detective who is a dapper dresser"(!), and many more.
    Maybe cutting out adjectives altogether would save us from the likes of these.

    1. Good point about the wrong adjectives, Tonette. I've seen examples of contradictory adjectives, too, but I don't think we should cut them altogether! Soemtimes they are necessary to paint a word picture or convey atmosphere but, as with many things, less is more!

    2. I really don't think we need to sweep them away,either,Paula,( I was thinking more like 'gun control' when it comes to contradictions!)
      They are part of our language for a reason and I use them in speech and i writing

    3. Sometimes they are essential - as long as they are well-chosen!

  2. Thanks for coming by and the comment Tonette. I think you're absolutely right about the misuse of adjectives. I think we're all finding that what is acceptable in grammar and punctuation changes with the times as does most things. I'm not sure that cutting out all adjectives would be the answer, but it would be an interesting exercise.

    1. Actually,Carol, I have heard than some 'writing courses' will tell you just that: cut them out altogether. No,adjectives have long served purposes and will continue to do so, (even when silly people and lazy editors drive us mad!)

    2. If you cut them out altogether, your writing would become colourless (literally, ib some cases!) and very boring!

  3. I would think you need some adjectives! I think any writer should be aware of developing trends, not only in language but in writing styles, grammar and punctuation. When I think of all the things I was taught as wrong, but see them freely used these days! Writing courses need to make sure they stay up to date also.


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