Beware the Adjective!

Remember “show, don’t tell?”

Generations of creative writing teachers have imparted this bit of wisdom, but if you’re like many harried communications professionals, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how it applies to the writing you do every day.

In fact, “show, don’t tell” can be a surprisingly useful bit of advice—an easy way to make your writing instantly more original and compelling. And it can be applied in unexpected ways. It doesn’t just mean use real stories to illustrate your points, for example. It also applies to parts of speech.

Say what? Parts of speech? Yup. I may be going out on that proverbial limb here. I know it’s a gross oversimplification with a million exceptions, but I’ll say it nonetheless:

In the world of words, verbs and nouns show. Adjectives tell.

Don’t get me wrong. Adjectives play an important role in language. After all, I couldn’t have written that last sentence without one. But too often they become an easy out, a quick route to imprecision, banality or meaningless cliché.

Consider a most obvious current example: “awesome.” Few will disagree that the once rich and evocative word has lost all but the most generalized meaning. (We know it means something positive, rather than negative, so that’s something, I guess.) Now think: is there a verb or a noun as meaninglessness as “awesome”? While I can think of a few that come close (“issue,” anyone?) I can’t think of any that provide as much a temptation to replace meaning with nothingness.

I’m not a linguist, but I suspect the structure of not only English but of most languages makes it impossible to overuse words like “issue” as much as some folks overuse “awesome.” As a result, nouns and verbs rarely take on the generalized meaninglessness of many adjectives.

“Awesome” and its ilk (every generation has its “awesome”) are extreme cases. But adjectives of all stripes are about telling, rather than showing, and often in the most vague and boring manner possible. I’ve never been happier with the public school system than the day my son came home from fourth grade to say his class had held a funeral for the word “very.”

But I seem to be breaking the rule.

Enough of telling, let me show you what I’m talking about in two simple sentences. Which do you prefer?

The view from our hotel room was beautiful.

Our hotel room overlooked a field of sunflowers that spread out for acres in every direction.

See the difference? But how easy it is just to slap down a word like “beautiful” and move on to the next sentence. It takes an act of will and some hard work to stop, think again, write the why of the beautiful, instead.

Of course, you can’t communicate without adjectives and you wouldn’t want to. But you can think twice every time you are about to use one. If you train yourself to be suspicious of adjectives, to consider them potential enemies to strong communication, you’ll find that your writing instantly improves. (You’ll also avoid common redundancies. In the last paragraph, I almost wrote, “a conscious act of will.” Then I thought: is there any other kind of act of will? Surely  an act of will is conscious by definition? English is rife with such tautologies: free gift, past history, unconfirmed rumor… Stopping to think before using an adjective might have the added bonus—er, I mean bonus—of ridding the world of such pointless expressions.)

Plus, when you do need an adjective, you might find yourself choosing it with more precision and care. Some time back, I wrote about Dickens’ odd and wonderful use of the word “perennial” to describe a character. While that might be considered verb-choice as extreme sport, even more prosaic choices among adjectives can make a difference.

For example, earlier in this post, I wrote “Adjectives play an important role in language.” “Important” was probably the right word for this sentence, but I did think about a handful of other options before I used it. Here are a few other adjectives I might have chosen:

Adjectives play a necessary role in language.

Adjectives play a critical role in language.

Adjectives play a crucial role in language.

Adjectives play a vital role in language.

If I checked the thesaurus—which I keep prominently displayed for one-click access on my toolbar—I’d probably find still more so-called synonyms. (They are rarely exact synonyms, which is the whole point. Each of the above sentences has a slightly different meaning. But if I didn’t tiptoe suspiciously around every adjective before employing it, I might never have thought about what nuance I wanted to convey.)

So the next time you find an adjective creeping carelessly into your work, dare to confront it. Do you really need it? Is there a more active, descriptive, verb-and-noun-friendly way to say what you want to say? And if you do need an adjective, is the one you were about to use the best one to make your case? Challenge that adjective! Make it prove that it’s on your side before taking it in. Your readers will thank you.

Have a question about something you’re trying to write? Bring it on! 

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One thought on “Beware the Adjective!

  1. An elaborate enunciation on adjectives. Though we use adjectives to substantiate our saying by adding value to the noun to be described, sometimes we end up in using an inappropriate one. When I was in school, I had a wrong opinion that synonyms have an equal degree of descriptiveness and for want of vocabulary, i tried using different words for the same context. It is at a very later part of my education I learnt that adjectives do have a degree of implication and it is inappropriate to use adjectives of strong sense where an adjective of a lighter sense could be used. Of course, learning is a “continuous” process, right?

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