Adjectives: the good, the bad, and the ugly 1

Mark Twain said, ‘When you find an adjective, kill it.’ Adjectives are words that modify nouns. So what’s the problem with them?


Video transcript follows below:

Mark Twain said, ‘When you find an adjective, kill it.’

Adjectives are words that modify nouns. In our parts of a sentence video, we looked at the sentence ‘Bob angrily shouts at his smelly socks’, in which ‘smelly’ is an adjective that modifies the noun socks.

So what’s the problem with adjectives? Nothing necessarily. In fact, used wisely, they can be glorious. Who would take ‘queer’ and ‘sultry’ from the opening of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ Similarly, what a shame it would be to lose ‘luminous’ from James Salter’s opening to A Sport and a Pastime: ‘September. It seems these luminous days will never end.’

The trouble is that inexperienced writers tend to overuse adjectives. Often people use an adjective when they’ve chose a vague rather than specific noun. For example, it seems a crime to write that there was a ‘big river’ or a ‘small river’ when we have so many great words for different types of waterway: was it an estuary, a stream, a runnel, a burn, a brook, a creek. Or was it, in fact, The Mississippi?

At their worst, adjectives reveal that the author isn’t doing her job. If you write that there was a beautiful view over this big river, then what you’re saying is please can you imagine a beautiful landscape that I’m unable or unwilling to describe. In the words of C.S. Lewis, ‘Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me?”’

When Dave Eggers writes ‘the trees broke and we were at the top of the trail, in a clearing, over the river, and at that point you could see for honestly a hundred miles. The sun was setting, and in that huge Amazonian sky there were washes of blue and orange, thick swashes of each, mixed loosely, like paint pushed with fingers. The river was moving slowly below, the color of caramel, and beyond it was the forest, the jungle, green broccoli chaos as far as you could see. And immediately before us there were about twenty simple white crosses, without anything in the way of markings. A burial ground for local villagers.’

When we read that, we think ‘wow, what a beautiful view.’

So, a couple of things to do – see how many adjectives you can find in that Eggers extract, and see if you can you find any adverbs of manner. What do you think of how Eggers uses adjectives and adverbs? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail image for this video uses a photograph by Kris Williams. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.facebook.com/kriswilliamsphotos. The video also uses a photograph of the Mississippi by Jupp Müller. It too is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of Jupp’s work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/jupp0r/)

One comment

  1. That’s a striking piece by Eggers. Clever, how he uses colours as nouns rather than adjectives. And then comes up with ‘green broccoli’ as a striking NEW compound adjective. Other adjectives are more like compound nouns – ‘burial mounds’ ‘local villagers’. I like his ‘honestly’, drawing us into the voice, as he wins us on side to appreciate the unbelievable. Loads of nice touches. Thanks for the piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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