Archive | November, 2010

Adjectives: Friend or Foe?

16 Nov

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable.” – Mark Twain

I’ve noticed that there is a discrepancy between what we are taught in elementary school and what we are taught in high school and college.  In elementary school, my teachers told me, “Columbus was a great man, and he certainly didn’t kill very many Indians!”; in high school, they said, “Actually, Columbus was not a great man.  He certainly did kill many Indians.”  My elementary school teachers said, “Yes, doing your work in crayon is acceptable!”  My college professors did not agree.

Another misconception my elementary school taught me?  That a good writer uses a lot of adjectives.  If I wrote, “The tree was tall, brown, leafy, and skinny,” they praised me.  I got into the nasty habit of over-describing in all of my writing.  I’m not sure how it happened: this clearly isn’t how we talk in real life.  You would never introduce someone saying, “This is my short, skinny, pale, fat friend Rick.”  First of all, poor Rick obviously doesn’t need the discouragement.  And second, it’s awkward and unnatural.

Of course, in writing, the reader can’t SEE Rick, so there is sometimes a necessity to be slightly more descriptive in writing than we would be in real life.  However, just like in real life, too many adjectives are awkward and unnatural.  It’s perfectly fine — and necessary, sometimes — to use adjectives.  Whether you’re setting up the scene in a short story or reviewing a journal article, adjectives will be involved.  And that’s okay.

However, adjectives should always be used in moderation.  Another old adage regarding their use states simply, “When in doubt, cut it out.”  Often, we use adjectives because we’re lazy.  It’s easier to plop some adjectives in front of a noun than to come up with a creative way to describe the way a person looks or acts.  It’s easier, but it’s not better.

Put your power in your verbs.  99% of the time, a strong verb is a better descriptor than an adjective.  I may have made that statistic up, but I think Mark Twain would agree with me.  He’s dead, so he won’t argue.

Save your adjectives for when you really need them.  That way, when one shows up, it’s interesting.  If you’re writing about a basketball, there’s no need to describe it as orange.  People know that basketballs are orange.  If you’re writing a story about a basketball that is, for some important reason, purple, then that might be interesting to mention.

Ultimately, I think adjectives are like remotes: it’s okay to have a few around, because they make things work.  But if you live in a house full of remotes, suddenly you’re turning up the volume on your garage and fast-forwarding through your dishes and your lawn mower is playing some Taylor Swift song, even though it really just sounds like lawn mower noises, and plus you didn’t expect that your lawn mower would be into Taylor Swift, and all is chaos and madness, and your mother is now throwing various dishes and furniture items at the wall, screaming, “I TOLD you to get a universal remote! I told you!”

So cut it out with the adjectives.  Otherwise, everything I described will come true, and it will make me feel sad, lonely, worried, anxious, fearful, afraid, and petrified.

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