Let’s Talk About Adjectives
By Evan Braun
Adjectives are a key ingredient in making your writing come to life in vivid and exciting ways. Without them, you’ll more than likely end up with fairly dry prose. Indeed, from my earliest writing exercises in elementary school I had it drilled into me that you can never have too many adjectives.
Later in life, I discovered that my elementary school teacher was dead-wrong about this. It is, actually, possible to overdo it when it comes to adjectives.
Well, let’s just say every once in a while I come across a sentence like this: Johnny, a happy, small, determined, little, Japanese, young, child-like boy, loved to play with his big, bright, wooden, beautiful, blue, solid, round, building toys.
Perhaps you can see the problem here!
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about adverbs and about why it’s generally a good idea to use them sparingly. The argument essentially came down to a pretty simple bit of writing advice: avoid redundancy, and aim for greater clarity and precision in your word choices.
Author Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about stringing together a really well-constructed sentence, has famously said that the road to hell is lined with adverbs.
Another famous author, Mark Twain, seems to have had a similar sentiment about adjectives: “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 they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say most authors should kill most of their adjectives. But the thing is, Twain was right. They’re weak when clustered together, and strong when spaced widely apart. In the above sentence about Johnny and his favourite toys, obviously too many adjectives, many of them redundant, have been clustered together, and the result is a very weak sentence.
The writer of that sentence about Johnny may not be happy to hear this.
“If I don’t use all those adjectives, how else will the reader know that Johnny is happy, small, determined, little, Japanese, young, and child-like and that he likes toys that are big, bright, wooden, beautiful, blue, solid, and round—and that they’re used for building!?”
First of all, it’s okay to leave out some extraneous details if they don’t enhance the story being told. It may not be necessary to the scene for the reader to know that the toys are “solid,” for example, especially when you’ve also described them as “wooden.” And the fact that the toys are “beautiful” is pretty subjective—and vague. If you’re dedicated to describing the beauty of the toys, perhaps you could find ways to be more specific about what aspects of the toys Johnny finds beautiful. Also, if the toys are just identified as building blocks, for example, then a few of these adjectives may not need to be stated.
And it seems clear that “small” and “little” are redundant, so only one is necessary. And the fact that he’s “child-like” may also be redundant, since he’s also been described as “young.” In fact, the fact that he’s a child means that he needn’t be described as “small” or “little.”
I’m sure more than half of those adjectives could be eliminated. Even if the writer is determined to convey all those details, they could be spread around to other sentences.
In fact, I would suggest using no more than one or two adjectives per noun. Let’s call this the Twain Rule, since it will result in adjectives not being clustered together so often.
Spread them out. Use them sparingly. It’s the same principle that applies to good adverb use.
But if you’re determined to pile up a large number of adjectives in one place, did you know that, in English, there are rules governing the order in which they should appear? Chances are you’ve been subconsciously following the correct order all along, and you didn’t know it. The correct order has been internalized by most English speakers.
According to rules of grammar that have been in place since time immemorial, adjectives should be arranged according to: (1) opinion, (2) size, (3) age, (4) shape, (5) colour, (6) origin, (7) material, and (8) purpose. This hierarchy cannot be deviated from. If you get it right, and you probably will do so by instinct, all is well with the world. Get it wrong and you risk sounding like a crazy person.
So let’s go back to that sentence about Johnny. Despite the fact that the author used far too many adjectives, did they at least appear in the correct order?
Let’s revisit it: Johnny, a happy (opinion), small (size), determined (opinion), little (size), Japanese (origin), young (age), child-like (opinion) boy, loved to play with his big (size), bright (colour/material), wooden (material), beautiful (opinion), blue (colour), solid (material), round (shape), building (purpose) toys.
So, no, the sentence is all wrong.
If this sentence is going to remain intact—which is inadvisable!—it should at least follow the rules: Johnny, a happy, child-like, small, little, young, determined Japanese boy, loved to play with his beautiful, big, round, bright, blue, solid, wooden building toys.
I mean, it’s still a mouthful, but at least it reads a bit more smoothly.
Seriously, the order of adjectives is inviolable. Don’t believe me? Just remember that it wasn’t My Greek Fat Big Wedding. It was My Big Fat Greek Wedding!
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.