When Adjectives are Necessary

When you catch an adjective, kill it

So wrote Mark Twain, so it must be right.  Plus it’s the name of a book.  And it’s deeply quotable, so easily found on a google search for adjectives.

But… how does a quote like that help you work out when and how to make use of adjectives?  This was the question that Cath Lawson asked when I introduced the theme of simplicity:

I wonder if you can talk about adjectives.  I’m a huge fan of cutting them out but I leave some in, for fear of going too far.

If you could write about getting the balance right, that would be great.  I would really like to know about keeping things simple without going overboard.

The simplest way I could think of to answer this question was in terms of necessity.  Is your adjective needed, or  not?  What difference is it going to make?

When In Doubt Strike It Out

‘When in doubt, strike it out’ is another Twain quote, and it forms the basis of classic writing advice on adjectives (and adverbs, which some advice-givers hate even more!)  The main reason is that we tend to throw in words that aren’t doing anything useful.  They don’t serve a purpose, so they become excess words.  Clutter.  Writing flab.

Adjectives are unnecessary when they:

  • Say what the noun already conveys
  • Repeat what another adjective says (key and important decision)
  • Intensify something for effect (a really important decision)
  • Reflect a tired cliche

If anything these kind of adjectives undermine your case.  Readers become suspicious of the extra emphasis.  They’d be more persuaded by the nouns doing the job on their own.

(As a sidenote, how rigorous you are about cutting them out will depend on the context - because that will influence how your readers ‘read’ you.  You can get away with more adjectives when writing online, because it’s more like conversational speech.  We use adjectives a lot more casually when we speak.  If we edited our speech down to the clearest crispest writing style it would sound unfriendly and abrupt… so watch you don’t edit your web copy down so far it starts to sound cold.)

That doesn’t mean cut out adjectives altogether.

Going back to the original Twain quote he goes on to say this:

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.

So watch out for adjectives that are used for emphasis, that are cliched, that do the work another word’s already done and that come too thick and fast.

When Adjectives are Necessary

We can’t write without adjectives.  There’s no point cutting out a word just because it’s an adjective.  You need to decide if it’s necessary or not.

If you’re in a part of the country where the dirt is red, feel free to mention the red dirt.  Those adjectives would do a job that the noun alone wouldn’t be doing (Zinsser)

Now that might be in a cool, dispassionate Economist style guide sense: does this word make my writing more writing more precise?

Or it might be in the telling a story sense: painting a picture, opening a window, sharing a part of your world.

When you’re doing that kind of writing the details matter - and  you can’t do detail without adjectives.

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.  We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese and hope we have enough money to pay for it.  At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth.  We are important and our lives are important, magnficent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. (Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones)

The same principles apply when you’re recording these details: avoid over-emphasis, watch out for cliches, make your writing as specific as you can.  But don’t cut them out just for the sake of it.

To illustrate this point I went off in search of some sentences that wouldn’t work without adjectives.  Here’s one:

Daddy lies on the white wicker daybed in his blue suit pants and sleeveless undershirt and black-stockinged feet, exhausted from a long week at the bank.

It’s from Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, by Garrison Keillor

Here’s another from the same book.

It’s an outrageous sentence.  It’s ridiculously long, is packed full with adjectives (nothing sparse about their use here), and tells us a book worth of stories in one short paragraph.

On Mother’s side, I am descended from pale bookkeepers with thick glasses and soft hands and pink-cheeked Methodists who lived with utmost caution, gingerly, regretfully, in little stucco bungalows in south Minneapolis around 38th Street and 42nd Avenue and rode the old yellow streetcar to work and once a year packed a trunk and rode the Great Northern Lakeshore Limited to their summer cabin on Lake Wobegon and waded into the water up to their waists and paddled around in the shallows and fretted about wasps and the dangers of botulism and black-widow spiders and bull snakes and lightning and escaped lunatics and were grateful to return to the city and their daily routine.

Zinsser’s advice on adjectives goes like this:

Make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.

I’d agree with that.  Use necessity as your criterion for deciding whether to leave an adjective in, or to cut it out.

That doesn’t mean reducing your writing to something clinical and business like.

There are all sorts of details that need to be remembered.  All sorts of stories that need to be told.

All sorts of work to be done.

What’s your approach to adjectives: do you work them in or cut them out?
Do you have any other tips and suggestions on adjectives that you’d offer Cath?

PS If you liked this post, perhaps you’d be good enough to pass it on? Links, tweets, bookmarks, stumbles: all welcome.

Book references and style guides

The Economist Style Guide: 9th Edition

William Zinsser: On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Summer 1956

Photo Credit: untitled is also an adjective by procsilas on flickr

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  1. Steve Sherlock · · Reply

    Joanna, great summary! and yes, great in this case is the defining adjective and must be kept.

    Steve Sherlocks last blog post..Another look at how to define your job

  2. This was a great post. You achieved your purpose - a simple examination of a writer’s rule often pronounced, but seldom examined. Thank you for your observations.

    And I’m really glad you expanded on Twain’s quote. The first sentence is often quoted, and it seems as if it’s taken quite out of context.

    I’m glad you did put in the part about using adjectives differently for different types of writing. I’m quite casual about my writing on my blog, and yes, it is a more conversational and personal approach. I like that in a blog.

    Bos last blog post..The Other Door

  3. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Hi Joanna, You’ve done a fine job of shedding light on the under discussed topic of adjectives. In my own writing, adjective pileup is often a sign that I need a stronger verb or noun. Example - Here’s a really stinky sentence from my latest blog post -

    “One approach I’m finding that works really well is to start with a Web site evaluation.”

    I should have written something like, “A Web site evaluation clarifies your thinking and your writing.”

    PS - I was only too happy to Stumbled this post!

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..Fix Your Content Strategy with a Web Site Evaluation

  4. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Gosh, that sentence I used as an example is bad even though it does not have lots of adjectives. :)

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..Fix Your Content Strategy with a Web Site Evaluation

  5. Steve, thank you. I’ll keep it :-)

    Bo, thanks for the feedback. I found it quite hard to construct this in a way that showed both sides of the story… glad it worked out okay.

    Brad, the sentences all seem fine to me! Comes back to the thing about writing on a blog - we need to soften the way we write, or it would sound far too abrupt. It’s one of the things I noticed as I was writing this - you can’t do as an article or essay because it would come across too teach-y. We still need to build the conversational, engaging bits around the message in the middle.


  6. Robert Hruzek · · Reply

    Wow, Joanna; I am in awe of Garrison Keillor’s sentence! It’s like… like the holy grail of run-on sentences! Now I have something to aspire to… :-D

    What’s really strange, though, is that it somehow, y’know, works!

    Excellent explanation of adjectives and WHY they should be used, Joanna. We gotta be sure we don’t “throw the baby out with the bath”, y’know?

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..In Honor of the Unsung

  7. I’m torn. Adjectives, frankly, kind of help define my voice. I think it’s more important to choose GOOD adjectives as opposed to eliminating them all together. I do a lot of travel writing/sales copy, so adjectives are a good tool when you want to give a location some OOMPH.

    I like Zinnser’s advice on making the adjectives do the work that needs to be done.

    It really is about finding the right balance! Great post, thanks!

    Miragis last blog post..What Do You Get When You Cross A Witch?

  8. Robert, I’m in awe of that sentence too. And am also feeling aspirational.. :-)

    Hi Miragi, thanks for stopping by. You’re right, we need to go for the good ones. Zinsser is particularly strong in his advice on travel writing, and how hard it is to avoid stale cliches when writing about places… but that’s not to say it can’t be done when you’re a good writer :-)

  9. Karen Swim · · Reply

    Joanna, this is excellent advice! Garrison Keillor has such wonderful folksy way of telling stories. His use of description is absolutely masterful. I tend to cut adjectives out because my clients write like they speak and add adjectives that do not enhance the reader experience. However, when storytelling adjectives definitely add color. I’m not as good as Keillor yet but I’m working on it! :-)

    Karen Swims last blog post..I Gave at the Office

  10. Robert Hruzek · · Reply

    Don’t worry; I think there’s a pill for that…

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..In Honor of the Unsung

  11. Jamie Grove - How Not To Write · · Reply

    Considering the amount of purple prose I post, it would be a bit silly of me to say that I have a handle on my adjectives.

    That said, I do try to crush as many as possible. I find that time is the great destroyer of adjectivial importance. In other words, if you let a sentence lie long enough the adjectives that need to go give off a bad smell. :)

  12. Robyn McMaster · · Reply

    I enjoy the writers you quoted because they truly help us flesh out writing.

    One of the items you list is one I truly need to work on is “tired cliches.” There are some that flow quickly as I begin initial work. I review carefully before I post to do that reflecting. I then play with alternatives that will be fresh.

    Thanks for a very insightful post on adjectives.

    Robyn McMasters last blog post..Tap Social Media to Spread Happiness

  13. Jim Hughes · · Reply

    Thought provoking. I enjoyed your presentation of the two sides, showing how they both could be effective. And I’ve recognized that twitter has impacted my writing. Not as many adjectives and adverbs because of space limitations. And that has carried over to my blogging. Thanks for making me think.

    Jim Hughess last blog post..The Importance of Showing Up

  14. Karen, thanks for that - reinforcing the point that it depends on the context and the kind of writing you’re doing. Won’t it be great whe we’re all as skillful as Keillor!

    Jamie, that’s a great point, and priceless advice. Take your time, and use your sense of smell :-)

    Robyn, I think one of the downsides of us reading too much is that tired cliches flow easily - they’re out on the page before we even knew what we were doing. Playing around and editing to keep things fresh is good for our writing - and our ideas… and our mind.

    Jim, that’s interesting. I am in favour of tight writing, but it would be a shame if twitter stole our adjectives!

  15. I have a food blog, and there’s just no getting away from adjectives there. You can write a recipe without them, but you can’t describe the result.
    In other environments, I strike a lot of them.

    kazaris last blog post..Serious strength for climbing

  16. Kazari, hello. I was thinking that it must be challenging to write about food without descending into over used adjectives - do you have strategies that you use to keep them fresh?

  17. Anthony Lawrence · · Reply

    I liked your point about “conversational style”. I’ve had people say “I feel like you are talking to me rather than writing to me”.

    I am. It’s the only way I know..

    I went on an “adjective hunt” in my most recent post. I found two or three that I *could* take out.. but they looked so happy and comfortable where they are that I decided to let them be.

    Anthony Lawrences last blog post..Fifty is nifty but twenty is plenty by Anthony Lawrence

  18. Anthony, yes, the way we write on blogs (and in some books) is very different to ‘classic’ writing advice. And if we cut out too much we do start to sound unfriendly.

    I’m glad you let your adjectives be… sounds like they were doing something useful where they were :-)

  19. I think the trick to keeping food description ‘fresh’ is to use as few adjectives as you can. That, and occasionally stooping to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer phrase -
    “Chock-full of bacon-y goodness”
    Yes, I know that’s mangling the language. But I think it also makes the point.

    kazaris last blog post..Serious strength for climbing

  20. Kazari, thanks for coming back. Using adjectives sparsely sounds like a good recipe :-) And nothing wrong with a bit of language-mangling now and then…

  21. Cath Lawson · · Reply

    Hi Joanna - thank you. That was quick. I didn’t open my reader for a couple of days and you have my answer here already.

    I do get in now. I can see how the adjectives added to the story in that last paragraph. Even two right together worked well.

    And I have often been guilty of leaving adjectives in to emphasise appoint but I can see how that might look suspicious now. Thank you.

  22. Thanks Cath, glad it was useful. I found it a very good question to work on - got my brain working hard. Thanks.

  23. I’ve to admit it, although I’m not a big fan of Adjective, but when it’s necessary, I still need to include it into the sentences…

    wilsons last blog post..Do Mind About Your Sleeping Hours!

  24. wilson, well it does all depend on the context and what you’re trying to achieve with your writing. If you think of them as something you keep in your writing toolbox you can just use them when you think they’re needed.

  25. eWritingJobs.com » Blog Archive » 100+ Blog Posts and Resources for Writers · · Reply

    [...] When Adjectives are Necessary [...]

  26. eWritingJobs.com » Blog Archive » 100+ Blog Posts and Resources for Writers · · Reply

    [...] When Adjectives are Necessary [...]

  27. The Baldchemist · · Reply

    If one is in doubt about when to use adjectives then one shouldn’t be writing.
    The problem is most are using things such as awesome, ultimate,unique and the f word, which I love without any knowledge of other fabulous adjectives.
    Nice article though. Take care and get as much joy as you can everyday.

  28. Hi, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I have to confess… I think people should keep writing regardless of certainty about adjective use… and keep looking for ways to make their writing more compelling and powerful as they go. But maybe that’s just me.

  29. The Baldchemist · · Reply

    Hello Brad A Web site evaluation clarifies your thinking and your writing.”
    How about the other way round? Your thinking and writing are clarified etc etc.
    Put the reason first.
    I love adjectives keep em going. Sorry about the lack of punctuation Im using a foreign keyboard and cant find the correct keys.

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