Strike them out: Mark Twain on adjectives

Published: 22nd June 2009
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In Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain cautions us on using adjectives: "As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."

Clifton Fadiman warns us too: "The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech."

Adjectives modify nouns. In the examples below, we see a tired boy sitting down:

The tired boy sat down.

The exhausted boy sat down.

The weary boy sat down.

The worn-out boy sat down.

The sleepy boy sat down.

The nodding boy sat down.

The drowsy boy sat down.

More than one adjective can modify a single noun as in the examples below:

The tired little boy sat down.

The exhausted young boy sat down.

The small weary boy sat down.

Adding more adjectives weakens writing. Strong writing comes from strong verbs and nouns. You may be asking what strong verbs and nouns are. Strong verbs and nouns have several qualities:

1. They are precise.

2. Rather than being commonly used, they are less commonly used.

3. They are paintbrushes creating visual and visceral images.

We can edit these sentences to tell us the boy is tired without using any adjectives:

The boy gasped for air after running down the mountain and fell into the chair in front of me. The boy finished swimming across the river, emerged from the water, staggered to a chair, and collapsed.

We can further edit these sentences, without using any adjectives, to include that the boy is small.

After running down the mountain, the boy gasped for air and fell into the chair in front of me, his feet still 12 inches from touching the floor.

The boy finished swimming across the river, emerged from the water, stood up towering at least two feet taller than my poodle, staggered to a chair, and collapsed.

These two examples, written with verbs and nouns, reveal more than adjectives. Adjectives only tell. Nouns and verbs show. The adjective still has a place in writing. We would like to suggest the following list of rules:

1. Whenever possible, use verbs and nouns to show instead of using adjectives to tell.

2. If you must use adjectives to describe a noun, limit yourself to one.

3. When you use an adjective, avoid overused adjectives such as nice, good, bad, important, interesting, and beautiful.

4. When you use an adjective, try to use uncommon adjectives such as decorous, gratifying, iniquitous, burning, and ravishing.

5. Use a metaphor or simile instead of an adjective.

Metaphors show how differences can be similar. Here are two examples:

1. The boy liked swimming very much.

2. The boy was a fish, only leaving the water to sleep.

The first example is a common sentence. The second example uses a metaphor to convey the same information with stronger writing.

A simile also compares two different things, often using the words like or as. We can use a simile to communicate the same information as follows:

The boy was like a fish, only jumping out of the water for a second or two at a time.

In moderation, adjectives help our writing. Most writers, however, overuse adjectives. Mark Twain thus cautions us. Our suggestion is the next time you reach for an adjective, remember the alternatives of strong nouns and verbs, and similes and metaphors. If one of these options is better for your writing, use it.


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