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Using Adjectives (Less is More)

by L. G. Estrella (originally posted on Adjectives are wonderful words. A few well-used adjectives can add spice to a passage of writing. However, a few poorly used adjectives can lead to disaster, and two of the easiest ways to misuse adjectives are to either use too many or to use adjectives that are just over the top. Let’s start off with an obvious example of using too many adjectives. The big, blue, shaggy, happy, fast, playful, excited dog ran toward its owner. Clearly, that’s too many adjectives. But how many is too many? A nice, simple test is to read the passage aloud. If you find that the adjectives sound a bit drawn-out or strange, then you’ve probably used too many. Remember, you don’t have to describe every single little thing about everything. Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, you can just call a dog a dog without delving into all the minutiae of its breed, colour, temperament, etc.

Generally speaking, it’s rare to see more than three adjectives being applied to a noun right next to each other, and many writers will never use more than two. There are even writers who won’t use more than one adjective at a time, save for extenuating circumstances. If you really want to describe something in detail, you can do so in stages, describing one set of properties at a time and spacing the adjectives out. Using over-the-top adjectives can lead to prose sounding quite purple. At the same time, however, we don’t want to always use the same adjectives to describe things. For example, there’s nothing wrong with using ‘huge’ to describe something if it is, in fact, very, very large. However, varying the adjectives you use too much can make prose sound quite bizarre. Some adjectives are popular for a reason. ‘Big’ is popular because it’s easy to understand, and it covers quite a large range. In contrast, if something is humongous, then it better be large indeed, otherwise using ‘humongous’ just comes across as weird. Furthermore, some adjectives just don’t sound that sensible when used with certain nouns.

Consider a few of the following examples:

Humongous sword

Ginormous building

Minuscule person

Berserk poodle

Now, there’s nothing to say that a sword can’t be humongous or that a poodle can’t be berserk, but those combinations are more likely to inspire giggles than awe (which is fine if you want people to laugh).

A good rule of thumb is to just ask yourself if you could imagine someone else using the adjective you want to use in the way you want to use it during a relatively normal conversation. If you can’t, then you might be better off looking for a different adjective. Of course, this is just a rough guideline. If you’re writing using a particular style (e.g., a more ornate style), then stick with that.

Adjectives are powerful things, so we should always be careful to use them properly. Guest post contributed by L. G. Estrella. L.G. is an aspiring author with a love for both reading and writing. On L.G.’s blog you’ll find news related to written original fiction along with tips on writing and thoughts on a range of different topics.

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