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.

Business Writing Tip #143—Hidden Verbs

In previous tips I’ve talked about verbs—action verbs, linking verbs, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs. Today I want to tell you about hidden verbs. Verbs that lurk in the shadows, pretending to be something they are not, and creating a writing style that is old-fashioned and, in my view, rather ugly.

Verbs are the fuel, the energy, of our sentences. They add power and move us forward. They give direction. They make our reader want to keep reading. They keep our reader’s interest. But only, only, if they are used well. If they are used badly, if we scatter weak verbs through our prose, they slow things down and make our writing difficult to read.hiding cat

The principal culprit in this crime is the hidden verb. This is the verb that we transform into a noun and then hook on to a weak verb.

Let me give you an example.

  • To make an application for employment with our company, please complete the attached form.

The hidden verb in this sentence is ‘apply’ and I have ‘nounified’ it, and joined it with the rather weak verb ‘make’.

Change it and it becomes much easier to read.

  • To apply for employment with our company, please complete the attached form.

Sadly there are people who feel that if words are good, then more words are better. This is not the case. In business writing, we only need as many words as it takes to make our meaning clear.

Here are some more ‘before’ and ‘after’ sentences (please note these examples focus on the hidden verbs, not on other style issues):

  • We need to carry out a review of the department’s budget to gain an understanding of where we are making overspends.
  • We need to review the department’s budget to understand where we are overspending.


  •  If you are unable to make the payment of the $850 instalment on the due date, you need to make an application in writing for approval of the late payment.
  • If you can’t pay the next instalment ($850) on the due date, please apply, in writing, for approval of the late payment.


  • Please undertake the calculation of the revised figures before we make our submission of the quarterly projections.
  • Please calculate the revised figures before we submit our quarterly projections.

The Hidden Verb Hunt

When you are hunting hidden verbs, there are some clues to look for.

  1. The ‘nounified’ versions often end in:
  • -ment
  • -tion
  • -sion
  • -ance
  1. Look for the following verbs and check if any hidden verbs are lurking near them:
  • achieve
  • effect
  • give
  • have
  • make
  • reach
  • take
  1. Look for the words ‘the’ and ‘of’ near each other. Often there’s a verb hiding between them.

Some Common Hidden Verbs

  • Conduct a review (review)
  • Make an announcement (announce)
  • Perform an analysis (analyse)
  • Make an adjustment (adjust)
  • Give consideration to (consider)
  • Make the payment (pay)
  • Production of … (produce)
  • Conduct an assessment of … (assess)
  • Performance of … (perform)
  • Make a calculation of … (calculate)
  • Reorganisation of … (reorganise)
  • Make a recovery … (recover)
  • Bring about the introduction of … (introduce)
  • Negotiation of … (negotiate)
  • Achievement of … (achieve)

Do you need another reason to uncover your hidden verbs? Removing them helps reduce wordiness.

Usually I sign off with Happy Writing.

Today, I’ll change it to,

Happy Hunting.

Business Writing Tip #142—Avoid Long Noun Strings

Have you ever read government writing, or a piece of business writing, where groups of nouns have been joined—strung together? Noun + noun + noun … These strings are often difficult to read because the relationship between the words is unclear.

Think about:

  • The subcommittee is encouraging public debate as part of the draft pension reform legislation process.
  • The government recently issued new transport workers’ underground safety protection procedures.

These are quite short sentences, but they’re not so easy to read because of the noun strings where all but the final noun have been turned into adjectives.

The Solution

One way to solve the issue is to get rid of any unnecessary words.

Our first example doesn’t lose anything by becoming:

  • The subcommittee is encouraging public debate on pension reform.

If you can’t find unnecessary words, you can make the sentences easier to read by making the relationship between the words clearer with prepositions and articles.signal - coloured disks

  • The government recently issued new procedures to protect the safety of employees working in underground transport facilities.

Now, my regular readers may be looking at this tip and thinking, “But didn’t you say in another post that shorter is better?”

I did write that. And I stand by it. But shorter is only better when the meaning is clear. Clarity is paramount and long noun strings destroy clarity. Remember, rules are only rules when they are useful.

Today’s image has nothing to do with the subject matter of this post. Prague is currently enjoying the Signal light festival and this attraction, with its disks that change colour when people move on them, was great fun.


Business Writing Tip #141—Report Writing: Understanding Common Directions

When we write essays in an academic setting we are usually answering a question that has been set for us. At work, when it comes to business reports, we may also be given a question to answer, or directions to follow.

For example:

We are planning to buy a new photocopier. Here are the details that three companies have provided us about their models. Can you put together a report comparing them on the photocopier_mediumbasis of the features, initial costs and lifecycle costs (including consumables and maintenance) and make a recommendation?

The vocabulary used for giving directions is fairly standard, but sometimes we may not understand exactly what we are being asked for.

To help you interpret such directions, here’s a list of common words used in questions and simple definitions.

AnalyseDivide the issue into its main parts and discuss each part. Consider how the parts interact and how they work together to form the whole.
ArgueExpress your opinion about the subject, and support it with evidence, examples, and details.
AssessSee evaluate.
ClassifyOrganise the subject into groups and explain why the groupings make sense.
ComparePoint out similarities.
ContrastPoint out differences.
DefineGive the meaning of the subject.
DescribeShow readers what the subject is like; give an account of the subject.
DiscussPoint out the main issues or characteristics of the subject and elaborate.
EvaluateMake a judgment about the effectiveness and success of the subject. What is good and bad about it? Why? Describe your criteria for your judgment.
ExplainMake your position, issue, process, etc. clear by analysing, defining, comparing, contrasting, or illustrating.
IdentifyName and describe.
IllustrateProvide examples of the subject.
IndicateExplain what you think the subject means and how you came to that interpretation (what makes you conclude that it means X).
RelatePoint out and discuss any connections.
SummariseDescribe the main ideas or points


Photocopier image credit: capl@washjeff.edu  – Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 US License  Creative Commons License

Business Writing Tip #140—Report Writing—Some Useful Verbs

In last week’s post we looked at some nouns you can use when writing reports. As promised, here are some verbs.report template image

Again, this list is not exhaustive. There are many more options. But it is a starting point, and might save you some time.

Happy writing.

acceleratespeed up
concentrate onfocus on
evaluatetake apart