On using adjectives

This week I submitted an assignment for one of the MOOCs I am studying (Write 101X – English Grammar and Style). I chose to write about the use of adjectives. Past posts have looked at the issue of wordiness, and sometimes adjectives are one of the culprits in creating this problem. Having taken the time to write this piece, I decided to use it here as well …

Until yesterday I thought proliferations of adjectives had a place. I was certain there had been times I’d enjoyed descriptive passages that oozed with them—passages like, ‘Frenetic and offhand, deranged and savvy, funny and brutal, crisp and wayward …’ (Jon Pareles). But as I looked at the books I read, I started to question their use or, rather, their overuse.row of garages

Of course, some adjectives are delightful. I recently described the row of garages in this photo as having ‘rustic charm’. I cannot find another expression to convey how I feel about the garages that I photographed on a recent ramble. ‘Rustic’ captured the air of neglect that surrounded them, the muted colours of their faded doors, and the location of the garages in front of an overgrown tangle of trees and bushes. However, if I had written this last sentence (‘the air of neglect … trees and bushes’), I would have been telling my viewers what to think about the photo. I may have limited their view and prevented them from seeing whatever it is that they saw. ‘Rustic charm’ left them room to think for themselves, at the same time as it gave them insight into my sensibilities.

Sometimes adjectives are essential as they define the noun. A terminal illness is different from an illness. The problem seems to be when the adjectives are designed to describe, rather than define.

When people read imagination plays a part. Some elements may need to be described, but, for me, literature works when my brain works. (I almost wrote literature is effective, but to be effective seemed much weaker, and much wordier, than the verb ‘work’).

As I considered the nature and usefulness of adjectives, I randomly selected some books from my shelves. Was my selection random? Perhaps not. The authors are those I admire; each book represents the genres I prefer to read. I digress. I picked up these books to search for adjectives, and to seek proliferations. I was sure I remembered reading and enjoying some.

I opened the first and found a description of a boy: ‘hay-haired, shaggy and filthy’ (The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt). A short string of adjectives. Are they necessary? Well, this description serves to illustrate the differences between this boy and the two others watching him; the differences in their circumstances. No words wasted. Two of the three define.

Next I turn to Night Letters by Robert Dessaix. The book falls open and I immediately see, ‘Brilliant man! Dangerously brilliant! Dangerous because he was so brilliant—composer, poet, writer, diplomat, inventor, confidant of cardinals and princes.’ Here nouns are pulling the sentence along, creating an image without a string of adjectives.

The authors of the remaining books I selected have also failed to write strings of adjectives. It seems that careful writers replace many of their adjective-noun combinations with stronger, more appropriate nouns. Or make sure that their adjectives are defining, not merely descriptive.

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