A Job For An Adjective


(This lesson is taken from Wordsmith: A Creative Writing Course for Young People, by J. B. Cheaney, available from Common Sense Press)

Adjectives describe–that’s their job. But as any employer can tell you, some workers do their job well, and some are just plain lazy. When talking about adjectives, we have to admit that it’s the writers who are sometimes lazy. Here’s what I mean:

“Hi. Did you have a nice time at the party?”
“Great! The Barrys are the nicest family.”
“They have a nice house, I hear.”
“Mrs. Barry was so nice to me. She said some really things about you, too.”
“Did she? That’s nice.”

How hard is the adjective “nice” working here? In one sense, way too hard, because it’s being used to communicate all kinds of positive qualities. But in another sense, “nice” isn’t working hard at all, because the speaker isn’t. Instead of describing a particular quality, the word is merely expressing approval: I liked the party (or the Barry family, the house, or whatever). It was all very nice.

This is okay for speaking, but writers should promise themselves never to use a general adjective like “nice” unless they’ve thought about it first. In writing, you should also be careful about vague qualifiers such as “good” and “bad,” “excellent,” “great,” “awful,” and so on. These words are useful in their place, but they don’t really describe (which is an adjective’s job, remember)–they only communicate a certain degree of the writer’s approval or disapproval. But “good” can mean totally different qualities, depending on whatever is desirable in the noun being described. A “good” heart often means a compassionate heart. But when choosing a football team, compassion is not the first quality you look for in a “good” linebacker. Here’s how the word can apply to other nouns:

Good judge – honest and fair judgeadjectives
Good dog – loyal and obedient dog
Good movie – exciting and fast-paced movie

Since we’re all accustomed to expressing approval or disapproval, it’s easy to slip into the habit of using the same general qualifiers (awesome! fantastic!) over and over again. But when writing, it’s worth the effort to think of genuinely descriptive adjectives, and to use them at least twice as often as the general kind.

To get an even better idea of the difference between descriptive and qualifying adjectives, try this. Below are four adjectives that express a general quality. Think of two or three descriptive adjectives for each noun. Each adjective should express a particular element that makes the object “beautiful” or “excellent.” For example:

ugly dress – ragged, gaudy, or outdated dress
ugly building – grimy, stark, or crumbling building
ugly remark – spiteful, cruel, or coarse remark

________________________________ garden
________________________________ sunset
________________________________ story

________________________________ painting
________________________________ job
________________________________ letter

________________________________ painting
________________________________ job
________________________________ letter

________________________________ park
________________________________ museum
________________________________ house

They say that one can tell what’s important to a culture by the number of words the people use to describe it. Have you ever thought of the dozens of adjectives we use to describe food?

Here’s a fun project: flex your adjectival muscles by writing a restaurant review. First, check out the “Weekend” section of your local paper to find such a review (big-city newspapers are more likely to feature them). Circle or underline all the adjectives you find to describe the food, service, and d├ęcor. Food descriptions will include texture and smell as well as taste: crunchy, savory, melting, light, tart, watery (usually bad), piquant (look that one up). Next, go out to your favorite fast-food place (or get your parents to take you out to a restaurant–tell them it’s for school) and write a similar review. Consult your thesaurus if necessary and use the most precise adjectives you can to describe the food, and remember that what’s good in a tomato may be unforgivable in a French fry!