Brain Break (English Class)

The Complete, Concise Guide to Adjectives

Adjective Cloud
Image by narciso-1 from Pixabay

Maybe I’m showing my age a bit here, but do you remember those old science films? (I won’t venture to ask if you remember the film STRIPS) I think they featured the same voice actor. His droning, nasal pitch could turn even interesting topics into snooze-fests. In no time, you’re head hit the desk, and you were down for the count. The scripts lacked flavor. I don’t know who wrote them, but they failed to use one of the most basic elements of writing: ADJECTIVES.

What are Adjectives?

Using the most basic definition, an adjective provides description:

A word that modifies a noun or pronoun to add specificity.

In the first paragraph, I used seven. (Go ahead: See if you can find all of them) Strip them away, and it reads as flat as those films we hated. Any well-programmed robot can generate sentences. But you need a creative human to insert detail and interest to the words, making them feel natural.

We don’t walk around speaking, “I saw a dog.” or “That’s a tree.” (And if you do, I’m concerned about a potential hostage/confinement issue)

No, we add adjectives to provide a richer texture:

  • “I saw a brown dog.”
  • “I saw a huge dog.”
  • “I saw a Bernese mountain dog.”

Choosing Adjectives

Now – as you can see – some adjectives work better than others. This is where those robots fail – AGAIN. You can teach an AI to add description to text. And the little robotic synapses will scroll through imagery and resources to pull out vocabulary. It doesn’t necessarily help copy read better.

When you’re looking to describe something, you want to choose words that add appropriate imagery in the reader’s mind. That involves engaging your imagination. What emotions are you trying invoke? What’s the underlying impression of the piece? Those are the adjectives you need to slide into your sentences.

If you’re writing a mystery novel, adding “bubbly,” “glittery,” and “smiling” into your description of a crime scene isn’t going to make sense. (Well, maybe it will. But you’d better have a good reason for Hello Kitty being the prime suspect) When discussing a new product release, you probably want to leave “difficult,” “impossible,” and “complicated” out of your key points. Customers will fasten on those words and walk away, feeling put-off – even if the gadget’s designed to make their life easy.

The adjectives you select convey an image. And how you choose and arrange those words will decide how your reader reacts:

  • “I saw a leering, ill-kempt dog.”
  • “I saw a jovial, fluffy dog.”

Same sentence structure, but the adjectives convey different emotions.

When to STOP Using Adjectives

Of course, you can go overboard. Like adverbs, you want to use your adjectives sparingly. There’s a fine line between writing with description and writing flowery nonsense that chokes your reader.

“Brown eyes” is acceptable. “Rich brown eyes the color of the first cup of coffee brewed on a crisp winter morning with a touch of cream” is ridiculous. You’re setting a mood, an emotion – not writing poetry. (Incidentally, if you ARE writing poetry, none of these rules apply) Clumping a string of adjectives together tells readers you’re having an affair with your thesaurus.

When you add description, you need to do so in the RIGHT way. That means adding details where they make sense. And, honestly, in the two examples above, it’s overkill. I wouldn’t leave either one in a piece unedited. I don’t like seeing adjective pairs. And you shouldn’t, either.

“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 close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”

~Mark Twain

Take a look at your writing and highlight your adjectives. (If you want, there are apps out available to do it for you) See if you notice them clustering together. If you do, it’s time to trim and edit. See if you can find another way to present the sentence, without losing your detail. (Remember, we’re not trying to go back to robotic writing)

For instance, let’s take a stab back at our two examples:

  • “I turned and saw the leering eyes of the dog, peering out of an unkempt face.”
  • “I saw a fluffy dog, bounding in jovial leaps toward me, its tongue hanging from its mouth.”

No loss of the original emotions or details, but now the structure gets shifted around. And it sounds more HUMAN. This is what you want to aim for. The sort of imaginative creation you can only get from the fingertips of a writer.

Adjectives brighten up our language. And they prevent readers from dozing off. (Actually, most of the time they look elsewhere) All you need to do is choose the right details for the setting. And avoid overdoing things. In no time, you’ll outpace the mechanical machines attempting to produce copy.

And maybe we’ll craft BETTER science videos.

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