I used to play the board game Scattergories at my brother’s house. If you’re not familiar, it involves a 20-sided letter die that is rolled to determine a starting letter. Each player then tries to fill a card with as many answers to specific categories on the card that begin with the letter on the die. For example, if the letter is R, and the category vegetables, you could score with radish and rutabaga. If another player came up with answers that matched yours, both players would have to throw out those answers – so it paid to be original.
The rules allowed the use of generic adjectives, as long as they were a part of the name of the item in question. Brown Bear, for example, would net two points if the category was mammals and the letter B, since brown is the specific species of the bear.
My brother and I liked to stretch the adjective rule to the breaking point. At the outset of each game, we’d agree to play with adjectives or without, but eventually we always reverted to playing with.
It was just more fun that way.
The letter R would then turn up answers like ‘Rancid Rotten Revolting Red Rutabaga,’ or the letter B would result in ‘Burly Brown Baby Bear,’ and so on. We’d always get a good laugh over who could come up with the most ridiculous combinations of alliterative adjectives in order to inflate their score.
A lot of authors would be naturals at this game, because too many of them are guilty of overusing adjectives.
I include myself in this indictment, because I happen to love willful, widespread, well-wielded witty words.
Sorry about that.
Funny in a game, but seriously not funny in writing.
Many editors, professors and writing coaches make it their crusade to do away with adjectives en masse, sort of a pogrom on prose, if you will. They claim adjectives are a sign of poor writing, or a writer struggling to fill an otherwise empty page.
I disagree, to a point.
Adjectives are part of the language for a reason, but they’re more like medicine for reviving lackluster writing. They need to be carefully administered in small doses, or they may kill the patient.
For example, I have read a lot of Bernard Cornwell’s books. Mr. Cornwell writes historical fiction, and is responsible for several well-known series such as The Warrior Chronicles, The Starbuck Chronicles, The Warlord Chronicles and the Richard Sharpe books. Cornwell creates vivid characters and tells a great, enjoyable story.
But he apparently loves the word plangent.
Novel to novel, series to series, he returns to plangent over and over again to describe one mournful sound after another. It finally got to the point where I would read another of his books because I liked the characters, but I would be cringing inside, knowing he was going to hit me with something plangent when I least expected it.
Cornwell had gone to the adjective well more than one too many times, and it impacted his writing in a negative way. My wife ran into a similar problem with a different author, this time in period romance novels. One of her favorite authors had the nasty habit of describing every leading female character’s hair as ‘luxuriant’.
Now, luxuriant and plangent are both punch lines in our house.
Using the same adjective over and over is just as bad as overusing different ones – the adjective becomes a distraction from the real writing – the nouns and verbs that are necessary for a complete sentence.
Adjectives should be the seasoning, not the meal.
The key to using adjectives is not to eliminate them altogether, nor is it to use them as if you’re scoring points for sheer numbers. Keep it to the barest minimum possible to allow the reader a glimpse of what you’re trying to get across – then stop.
It all comes down to the aural test. If you read the phrase out loud, and it doesn’t sound like something someone would naturally say – then change it until it does.
Otherwise, your luxuriant writing may slip into obscurity as a plangent dirge plays in the background…
Oooohh, that’s not bad…
One of the worst sentences I’ve ever read: “…inexpressibly grateful that fate had combed her and him from the tangle of humanity, and that love had braided them together in marriage.” Oh, barf! Reading it out loud only confirms how truly awful this line is.
It might surprise you to know that this was not a dime store romance novel, but a suspense thriller by a very popular and successful author. One who has apparently lost his bearings and forgotten about his audience, which is disappointing.
That sentence made me almost throw up a little. Right up there with luxuriant hair and plangent notes of a trumpet…