Throwing the baby out with the bath water

Last week’s writing group exercise explored the use of adjectives and adverbs. It was surprising how much trouble they caused. We could all remember examinations and other circumstances where we had to make up the word count with the spurious and often redundant use of the ad-words. We agreed that they could make our writing clear and interesting, but we also acknowledged that overuse could clutter our writing and make it confusing and less effective. And they certainly won’t improve bad writing.

First off, we examined the definitions.
• An adjective is a word that describes, identifies, modifies, or quantifies something. In the phrase, “the black dog” the word black is an adjective because it describes the dog.
• Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs, as in “happily married”.

Adjectives are classified into categories such as quantity, opinion, emotion, sound, taste, size, smell, speed, temperature, age, distance, shape, colour, time, origin, material, purpose. They are also pressed into use to express comparatives and superlatives.
Adverbs typically answer questions such as how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and provide information about the circumstances of the activity denoted by the verb, such as slowly, now, soon, or suddenly.

Some of the sharpest literary brains around counsel against using adjectives or adverbs. Stephen King, for example, maintains that, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and Mark Twain warns, “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 close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”

So how do we know which to keep and which to scrub? I remember my old English language teacher instructing me to “find another word” whenever I used ‘nice’. I can see his point. It’s a fairly innocuous word, but it tells us very little. It seems that the adjectives and adverbs worth keeping are the ones that add new information and those that should go are the ones that contain value judgments. They tell readers how to feel about something (awesome, cool) rather than giving us the facts and letting us decide for ourselves. As Ezra Pound puts it, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.”

Back to the writing group. As our homework, we were set the task of writing a short story of 500 words, using only four adjectives, and two adverbs. It made us all reassess our understanding of these parts of speech. Everyone wrote with a dictionary open at their side, checking each word it case it contravened the rules. We were surprised by our own ignorance. Only one of our number managed the task successfully. He produced a dystopian nightmare where the language police were alert to every use of the dreaded words and visited awful punishments on offenders. I say successful, as it adhered slavishly to the brief, but it was, by the writer’s own admission, a flat and colourless piece of writing.

If you’d like to read more examples of why adjectives and adverbs are to be avoided, look at the Bulwer-Lytton competition which challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Like this Dishonourable Mention:
Finally after ninety-seven long days adrift Captain Pertwee was rescued, mercifully ending his miserable diet of rainwater and strips of sun dried Haddock which was actually far ghastlier than it sounded what with George Haddock being his former first mate. — Phillip Davies, Cardiff, U.K.


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