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February 26, 2004 - Adjectives - 2004-02-26

Broadcast: February 26, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- telling less, and showing more.

RS: Adjectives are words that modify or describe nouns. But here's how a lot of writers and writing teachers describe adjectives: in a word, overused. Back in the seventeen hundreds, the French writer Voltaire called adjectives "the enemy of the noun."

AA: So notes University of Delaware English Professor Ben Yagoda. He wrote an essay about adjectives in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education.

YAGODA: "It would be impossible to communicate without them, although people like Hemingway seemed to have tried. There's a certain class of adjectives, which are absolutely necessary. So if someone says which hat do you want -- you say, well, I want that red one. The word red is the way you indicate which one you want. So no one would ever suggest that adjectives should be abolished.

"I guess the problem comes in for people like Voltaire -- and also Mark Twain had a famous quote that said 'when you catch an adjective, kill it.' William Zinsser, an authority on writing said that 'most adjectives are unnecessary.' But I think the main problem that comes up is that people use adjectives sometimes -- especially beginning writers -- to do the work of nouns and verbs."

RS: Ben Yagoda says it's better to let details speak for themselves.

"If you're describing someone and say that she is a 'beautiful woman,' that word beautiful is the adjective. It's a hackneyed, tired word, almost on the level of a cliche, and if I had a student in my class who wrote that in a sentence, I would say no, you have to do better than that. Tell me that when she walked in the room, the jaw of every man in the room dropped -- the idea being to show, not tell."

AA: "Well, you just took the words out of my mouth. I was going to say that my wife is a schoolteacher, and she always talks about how she teaches her students, or tries to get them to ‘show, not tell.’ What are some tips or some ideas for the appropriate use of adjectives?"

YAGODA: "I would say, number one, would be to be sparing. The analogy, I would say, is with cooking and spices. You could say that the nouns and the verbs are the meat or the stew, and the adjectives and adverbs are the seasoning. So without them the stew would be very bland and dull indeed.

But if you use too many spices, too much spice, they drown each other out. So just the right two or three words in the course of, you know, a passage of several paragraphs that are really well-chosen and not hackneyed and tired words like beautiful."

RS: At the other extreme, some writers choose adjectives that send readers to their dictionary. Professor Ben Yagoda says obscure words have a place in good writing, but not always.

"Use one of those words if there's no other word that can express that meaning. In other words, if you think something is funny, write the word 'funny,' not the word risible -- R-I-S-I-B-L-E, which basically means funny. And it doesn't add anything to it except the sense that the writer is trying to show off and show how smart they are.

"Sometimes a word is the right word to choose maybe not only because of its meaning but because of the sound. One of the examples of great use of adjectives is one of the most famous quotations of all time, from Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, from his book 'Leviathan'. And he referred to life of man in the state of nature, and he called it 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'

"All of those words are very plain words but they are not cliches like beautiful. They are words that are well-chosen, they're simple, and the rhythm of that sentence has a certain inevitability to it in terms of the number of syllables and the sound of the words that really makes it one of the great quotations of all time."

AA: "So use adjectives carefully, use them sparingly, don't shoot for obscure ones unless you really know what you're doing. These sound like some of the tips you're giving."

YAGODA: "I think those, those -- yeah, now that you've paraphrased them, I think I'm a smarter guy than I thought I was before. Those sound like good tips."

RS: And Ben Yagoda has one more piece of advice. Read, he says. Reading not only increases vocabulary, but also gives the reader a better sense of words and what they can do.

AA: His book "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing" is coming out in June.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is

AA: And you'll find all of our segments at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.