Don’t Kill Nouns with Adjectives

The sweltering heat these days reminds me of my old, favourite introduction: “The monstrous red ball of supreme heat hung on the light-blue sky, threatening to melt all the helpless pedestrians on the busy street with its radiating warmth“. I loved this introduction so much that I would use it for almost every primary school composition assignment irregardless of the question; after some time, my teacher became so accustomed to my writing that he could identify my composition from its first sentence. Since my teacher did not complain much, I had the false belief that my descriptive introduction reflected good writing style. Eventually, the use of adjectives became a desire to show off my rich vocabulary and that resulted in an immature writing style.

I did not realise my mistake until much later, when I entered high school. My heavily adjectival prose caught my teacher’s attention and when she could not take it any longer, she summoned me to her office. That day in her office changed my writing drastically because it was there that I understood the shortcomings of my style; instead of displaying my proficiency in the English language, the constant use of adjectives only made my writing embarrassingly ornate. In addition, my writing also suggests a lack of confidence, as if I am trying to make up for my inability by overdecorating my sentences. If every crisis is a critical crisis, every emergency an urgent emergency, and every problem a grave problem, then the whole idea of a crisis, an emergency, or a problem becomes devalued. In these situations, the adjective becomes the enemy of the noun.

That does not mean that we can do away with adjectives. Adjectives have their uses when they define and refine rather than simply emphasise. In the sentence “We are in legal trouble“, the adjective, legal, has a truly informative function. For a vigorous style, you can try replacing adjectives with colourful nouns. “The penniless man that lives in a small, filthy hut” can be replaced by “the pauper that lives in a hovel.” A “large and impressive house” can be replaced by a “mansion” and so on. You get the idea. Now, before you give in to the temptation of using flamboyant language, do remember the guiding principle of using adjectives and you will surely produce a good piece of writing!

This article was written by a guest writer on ERPZ.net and not by Kevin – its presence in this blog is merely due to the archived nature of Kevin’s blog posts from the past.

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Actually it’s not only adjectives per se, but – in general – pompous, bombastic words which serve to obfuscate rather than elucidate. Plain English ftw!

  2. Kevin says:

    You’re actually attacking two separate issues of adjectives here. First is the over-use and therefore a crowding out of the subject matter (whatever the nouns are referring to) and the second being the useless-ness of particular adjectives given the noun that they’re tagged to.

    The over-use occurs in the sentence Martin use during his primary school days. No doubt it’s ornate (just as much of Obama’s speeches might be), but the message is not exactly blurred out if you’re using for certain context, especially for story-telling.

    In the subsequent examples, Martin cites the repetitive descriptive effect that certain adjectives have when coupled with particular nouns. Indeed, certain noun have got inherent implicit descriptions that allows them to be used without the adjective. Some others would be ‘troublesome trouble’, ‘lazy sloth’, ‘really true’. The use of ‘super’, ‘very’, ‘extremely’ and other degree-indicators are particularly problematic because it pushes the English Language towards extremes.

    For more of these, you could try reading The Complete Plain Words…

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