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The trouble with adjectives

A young girl was going into school to take her English exam. Her mother checked her uniform, made sure she had a pen that worked, then uttered this piece of advice: “Remember, dear: two adjectives to every noun and you’ll be sure to pass”.

It’s a style of writing that many people cling to in later life, too. Even copywriters. But not the greats. You see, it turns out that larding your prose with adjectives achieves precisely the opposite effect to the one you are striving for.

Just as a diet high in fat furs up your arteries like old water pipes, so a profusion of adjectives clogs up your writing and makes it harder to get the meaning through.

And let’s be clear – we are always striving to communicate an idea. Clearly, vividly and concisely. So why are adjectives so dangerous? Essentially, because all too often, they allow the lazy writer to avoid the work of researching the subject and choosing the precise noun.

Lazy writers don’t bother bringing their product or service to life; they leave all the hard work to the reader.

What not to do

Let’s look at a couple of examples, starting with the “super, smashing, great” school of adjectival overuse:

“The course will be followed by an exciting acrobatic display.”

This writer has fallen back on our old pal, ‘exciting’ as a substitute for thought. Let’s suppose we’ve found out a bit more about the display.

“The course will be followed by a display of acrobatics, performed by five members of China’s Olympic team. They will climb a 100 ft pole before diving headfirst through a hogshead of real fire.”

Notice that where we do use adjectives, they are adding information about the thing they’re describing, not merely puffing it.

How about this one, where the writer is adding unnecessary adjectives (among other things):

“We are faced by a grave crisis, calling for immediate action to bring a complete stop to further damaging instances of mismanagement.”

As a start, we’ll cut all the adjectives (after all, a crisis is grave, by definition; any action needed will clearly need to happen immediately; you can’t bring something to a partial stop; and mismanagement is always damaging).

“We are faced by a crisis, calling for action to bring a stop to further instances of mismanagement.”

In fact, we can remove the passive voice from the opening phrase and tighten up the rest of the sentence like this:

“We are facing a crisis, and need to stop further mismanagement.”

And my point is?

If you want to tighten up a piece of copy, you could do worse than cut every adjective. Focus on choosing the precise noun, rather than qualifying vague or abstract ones with adjectives.

And be particularly wary of emotional adjectives, like fabulous, important, exciting, fantastic. It’s for your reader to feel these things, not for you to dictate them. Show them *why* something deserves these badges and let them pin them on.

Categories: Maslen on Marketing and Style.

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