Let's Get Technical

Let’s Get Technical: Adjectives and Adverbs

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Adjectives and Adverbs

The most common complaint or issue that authors have when it regards adjectives and adverbs is their overuse. Overusing adjectives or adverbs can lead to a form of ‘telling’ writing in which the writer is ‘pigeon holing’ the reader into their world. Look for example at the following sentence:

The dark blue evening sky was thoroughly coated with the darkest tinges of blood red, as if a gigantic alien creature had suddenly died and left its bloodied carcass hovering in the silver tinted clouds.

 If you run through the sentence and highlight all uses of adjectives or adverbs the sentence appears as follows:

The dark blue evening sky was thoroughly coated with the darkest tinges of blood red, as if a gigantic alien creature had suddenly died and left its bloodied carcass hovering in the silver tinted clouds.

The bolding of these adjectives and adverbs highlights their overuse. While the sentence may be intriguing, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs is forcing the reader to accept this particular view of the sky – rather than allowing them the room to form their own conclusions. However if we remove the modifying words altogether then look at the following sentence:

The sky was coated with red, as if a creature had died and left its carcass hovering in the clouds.

While this sentence is invariably much shorter, it lacks the same dramatic sense as the previous sentence. And therefore it becomes clear that as a writer adjectives and adverbs do not need to be your enemy – but they should not be doing all the work for you.

Adjectives

Adjectives are specifically words which modify nouns or pronouns. According to a basic definition of adjectives they can be broken into three main groups: Attributive, Predicative and Nominal Adjectives.

Attributive Adjectives are adjectives which apply an attribute to a noun. In other words they become part of the noun phrase they modify. A perfect example of this would be the use of the adjective ‘happy’ as in ‘happy children’ where ‘happy’ gives the children the attribute of happiness.

Predicative Adjectives are adjectives linked to the noun indirectly via a linking mechanism. For example rephrasing ‘happy children’ as ‘the children are happy’ turns ‘happy’ into a Predicative Adjective because of the linking term ‘are.’ The same exists for sentences such as ‘I am happy’ and so on.

Nominal Adjectives are adjectives which almost become a noun due to the nominalisation or removal of a noun. Take for example the following sentence: ‘I had to choose between vanilla ice-cream and chocolate ice-cream, I preferred the vanilla.’ In this case the second use of ‘vanilla’ is a Nominal Adjective. This is because the noun of ‘ice-cream’ is absent and the word ‘vanilla’ appears like a noun.

It is important to understand the technical aspects of adjectives in order to know when adjectives are being overused. It may be appropriate at times to use nominalisation to avoid overusing nouns in sentences and simply leave the adjective standing where suitable. It may also be inappropriate to use a modifying adjective in certain situations – the question that a writer must ask themselves is: do I need to describe this noun or pronoun?

Do you need to include that the person was ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or can you describe this without a direct adjective? Can you later express how the individual was feeling melancholy instead? Can you use more specific adjectives to express your direct thoughts and ‘show’ the reader ideas rather than ‘tell’ every detail about those ideas?

Remember the key for adjectives is to be specific and meaningful in understanding what the adjective is doing. Is the adjective in your sentence as a meaningful noun or pronoun modifier? If not, then it is likely you can cut the adjective out.

Adverbs

Adverbs are far more tricky to deal with than adjectives. As such they are often despised by writers for the danger that they pose. Stephen King equates the danger of adverbs to dandelions:

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.” – Stephen King in On Writing

In other words, adverbs are ‘pretty’ and ‘unique’ if there is only one but the danger they pose is that they can quickly turn into a multitude of literary weeds.

The primary function of adverbs is to modify verbs and their actions. As such many adverbs end in the suffix ‘-ly’ such as: ‘I acted sufficiently.’ The word ‘sufficiently’ here being the adverb modifying the verb ‘acted.’ However, adverbs can uniquely modify adjectives in the case of ‘The wonderful happy child’ where ‘wonderful’ modifies the adjective of ‘happy’. Adverbs can also modify other adverbs, as in the case of ‘I acted exceedingly sufficiently.’ This is where adverbs can easily pose a problem for writers.

Take the following example of a basic sentence: ‘The car drove fast.’ Now the temptation as a writer is to observe that sentence and believe that it is too dull. Therefore such a sentence is in need of shiny modification to become ‘The car drove very fast.’ This is where many writers have a problem – does the word ‘very’ improve the sentence? On the surface it looks longer and more complex but what does the word ‘very’ mean? Does it inform the reader of how quickly the car was travelling? Does it provide an idea about the speed of the car at all?

Asking these questions, the writer then understands that the word ‘very’ is adding ‘very’ little to the sentence and decides to change the adverb yet again: ‘The car drove excessively fast.’ The adverb ‘excessively’ has a stronger, targeted, implication with regards to the idea of how fast the car drove. The reader understands that the car drove over what was considered reasonable.

Therefore what the writer needs to consider with the use of adverbs is the following question: does this adverb provide the most specific modification of an adjective, verb or adverb? Should I use adverbs such as ‘much’ or ‘very’ at all?

If writers ask themselves these questions adverbs can become a highly useful tool for modification, similarly to adjectives. However, if adjectives and adverbs are being used which add nothing to the phrase or sentence except word-fill – cut them out.

 

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