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Starve an Adjective, Feed a Verb

I don't know about you, but when I was in school I remember being urged to "improve" my writing by adding more adjectives. As a strategy, I feel this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why are adjectives so bad? Before I explain, let me give you a quick refresher: As you may (or may not) remember, adjectives are words that describe nouns. For example, pink, hideous, irritating, lovely, muffled, magnificent, scrawny, gorgeous, tart and grumpy are all adjectives. Adjectives don't have to be just one word -- they can be hyphenated, like triangle-shaped or two words, like ooey goey.

There are lots of difficulties with adjectives, but here are the three main ones:

  1. Adjectives are imprecise. For words that are supposed to improve your writing, it's remarkable how vague adjectives can be. Take the word magnificent, for example. Does it mean imposing (like a magnificent lion), awe-inspiring (like a magnificent sunset), noble (like a magnificent king) or grand (like a magnificent Manhattan apartment)? Many adjectives are a bit like the bubble-wrap you find surrounding courier envelopes -- they hide and cushion rather than reveal.

  2. Adjectives mean different things to different people. Here's where you really get into difficulty. A few years ago, a well-known pizza billboard used the headline, "Ooey gooey." To the copywriter, "ooey gooey" was code for "delicious." But can't you imagine someone -- the kind of person who eats pizza with a fork, perhaps --thinking "ooey gooey" is disgusting? And that's the trouble. When words are imprecise, you lose control over the meaning the reader takes in.

  3. Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y. Today's reader, beset with marketing, cross-marketing and sales messages wherever he or she turns, is more cynical than ever. Readers are looking for solid information from sources they can trust. If your writing is filled with adjectives, you're going to sound like you're selling all the time -- and you'll turn off readers. Look at this sentence, for example: Pristine beaches, abundant wildlife, and scores of Miami scene-makers make Fort Lauderdale a year-round hot spot. Doesn't that make you suspicious rather than intrigued? Doesn't it sound as though the writer is trying too hard? It's the adjectives that cause the problem.

So, if not adjectives, then what? Here's the big secret: Good writing isn't about adjectives -- it's about verbs.

Verbs -- words like run, carry, heft, prevail-- embody action. Often described as the "workhorse" of the sentence, verbs power your writing. Consider these for example: squander, obstruct, plunder, poach. Each a single word, and each freighted with meaning. You wouldn't think one word could carry such impact. But good verbs don't just tell the story -- they create a picture in the reader's mind.

If you want to amp up your verbs here are some strategies you can use:

  1. Whenever possible, try to replace "state of being" verbs -- is, am, were, was, are, be, being, been -- with action verbs. (Search for "is" or "was" in your writing and see how many you can eliminate.) For example: "Jerome was an A+ student" could become "Jerome earned straight A's at school."

  2. Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.

  3. Watch for the chance to use verbs that reflect sound -- the baby gurgled; the girls shrieked.

  4. Keep a list of powerful verbs you stumble across in your reading -- then work to incorporate them in your own writing. Keep an eye out for offbeat and unusual uses of verbs. For example: "The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park." Cascaded and swallowed are not two verbs you'd expect in a sentence like that -- which makes them all the more powerful.

The bottom line? Forget about adjectives -- they're as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men and women of the beach. After all, if your goal is to move readers (either literally or metaphorically), doesn't it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8� Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 22nd 2006, 5:18 PM
Comment by: Julie M.
Thanks for the article:

When I wrote speeches for Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi he said there are definite "feminine" and "masculine" verbs. For example, he said, "feel" is a woman's word and "accomplish" is a man's word. It seems "nibble" would be a female word while devour would relate more specifically to a "man". . .or a man would relate to it more strongly than to "nibble". I changed my speech-writing style with this idea in mind. I began to choose words, specifically verbs, for the targeted "audience".

Julie McKay
Las Vegas
Wednesday November 22nd 2006, 6:16 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
Ms. Gray-Grant, what a worthwhile article you've written! I teach middle-school English, and my students do an exercise with me where an action verb is written on the board, e.g. walk, and then we list as many other verbs as we can that mean about the same as walk: stagger, waddle, trudge, plod -- you get the idea. I try to get them to understand that sparing the adjective for the vivid verb will result in sentences that come alive. We succeed to a degree, but young writers do love their adjectives. Sometimes they like both: they'll pile on the adjectives and use two or three vivid verbs in succession, often to comic effect. But that's twelve- and thirteen-year-olds for you. Or in your experience, does that go for us adults, too?

I'll read the Terms of Use for the Visual Thesaurus to see if I may use your article in my classes. I hope so; you put things so succinctly. My students' reading the counsel of a professional lends authority to my voice.
Friday November 24th 2006, 7:24 PM
Comment by: oliver W.
The writer makes helpful points. I am guilty of using too many adjectives, and I will take this advice to heart. Verbs are the power in a sentence. Let us use strong verbs that are clearly defined.
Saturday November 25th 2006, 6:29 AM
Comment by: Mark L.
Isn't "sacred" an adjective ? Is this ...(as) "floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings" ?
Wednesday November 29th 2006, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Maksa M.
Fantastic article.
Wednesday November 29th 2006, 4:15 PM
Comment by: Aniruddha G.
So, how would you rewrite this using verbs?
"Pristine beaches, abundant wildlife, and scores of Miami scene-makers make Fort Lauderdale a year-round hot spot."
Wednesday November 29th 2006, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Patricia J.
Long live the verb!
Wednesday November 29th 2006, 7:43 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Julie, I agree that there are words some of us tend to perceive as "masculine" & "feminine" although I always caution against too many generalizations along gender lines. Realistically, your job was to capture the "voice" of the guy you were writing speeches for...and as he didn't like using words like "nibble," well, that's all you needed to know. It probably goes back to the excellent advice: write for your audience.

Mike, I don't mind you using my article (but do check with VT for terms of use) Please also encourage your students to sign up for my newsletter. (It's free.)

Mark, yes, sacred can be used as an adjective -- as in sacred music. I'm not saying don't ever use adjectives -- I'm just saying that if you CAN use verbs to convey description, you should. Also, I'm a big believer in metaphor. Hence the line: "gaggle of 98-lb weaklings." I think a fresh metaphor (and I'll grant, the one I used wasn't the freshest) can make some adjectvies come to life.

Andy, you raise an absolutely fascinating point about rewriting. Some sentences are so far off the mark they can't be fixed by substituting a few words. The writer has tried to take a dull thought and an equally dull verb ("make") and gussy it up with a few adjectives. You can't. But nor can you do the reverse -- take a dull thought and gussy it up with a great verb. The real problem is that the sentence lacks imagination and is essentially "ad-speak", designed to "sell" rather than inform or excite. Look also at the phoney nouns -- "scene makers" and "hot spot". This sentence should be put out of its misery.

Thanks again for writing, everyone!

Tuesday December 5th 2006, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Howard L.
As a tyro subscriber, I feel like I have found myself in this beautiful "pond" for wordsmithing. I admire your technical and artistic talents. Thank you.
Sunday December 10th 2006, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Gerald J.
My third grade teacher, Sister Concenciana, pounded the message to her students that one writes " to express not to impress. " She suggested. No, Sister C never suggested. She stated that verbs express and adjectives impress.
Tuesday December 12th 2006, 4:26 PM
Comment by: zvi Y.
What a super duper over-the-top terrific sensible article

Sunday December 17th 2006, 10:36 PM
Comment by: www. I.
I crave advice which helps me realize my goal of manitaining a simple approach.

Wednesday December 20th 2006, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I will go back and see how to subscribe to your newsletter, but first I want to thank you for illustrating that point so clearly. Our writing group struggles to avoid the adjectives and adverbs our English teachers praised decades ago. Some of us still bleed when we cut our writing. I got this subscription from my son and family (at my request) as a Christmas gift. I jumped on it as soon as word came that I was "paid for" and I see this site as a lifeline.
Thursday January 25th 2007, 12:21 AM
Comment by: SAM G.
This piece is relieveing. Now verbs are bouncing all around my brain.
Thanks for the information.
Sam G
Thursday April 12th 2007, 12:14 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I seem to be going against the general opinion, but I for one am a fan of the adjective. While I agree that strong verbs are requisite for good writing, what is wrong with a strong, descriptive adjective as well?
Why ignore beautiful words such as 'sumptuous' and 'idyllic'? I know that there is a strong movement recently against adjectives and adverbs, but I believe that these are still instrumental and indispensable.
A good example of how adjectives paint the picture in a sentence is:
"The bleak mansions across the town ravine opened baleful dragon eyes." -- Ray Bradbury
The words that create the image in this sentence are not the verbs but instead the adjectives like bleak, baleful and dragon.
From what I see above, I stand alone on the pro-adjective side of this argument, but I stand proud and I will continue to constellate my sentences with lovely, adjuvant adjectives.
Tuesday February 17th 2009, 5:46 AM
Comment by: Heather B. (Tampa, FL)
I've been taught that it's okay to use adjectives if they're unusual, as in "molten sunrise" or "bloody thimble." So there you go.
Tuesday February 17th 2009, 9:53 PM
Comment by: Gina P. (Elgin, SC)
When I teach students that their writing should "show" not "tell," they often choose to add in some adjectives to make it spicy. I encourage using powerful verbs and specific nouns when they go through the revision process. "Stranger" instead of "man" or "jalopy" instead of "car" can do more for a piece than descriptive adjectives sometimes will; although I degree exciting adjectives do have their place.
Thursday February 19th 2009, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Ooey goey? Maybe you meant "ooey gooey." Pretty funny that no one noticed this in over two years...
Thursday February 19th 2009, 9:28 PM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
It is an interesting phenomenon that a few of us suddenly read this article 27 months after its posting. Did VT move the link somewhere more prominent?

In any case, I concur with Katie, I am a fan of adjectives and feel we should continue to use them in exceptional, beautiful, and arresting ways, and I agree with Rachel V., ooey goey is actually spelled ooey gooey because it is from goo not go that we get gooey.

Also, when I read this article I paused a bit when I found that the author had provided an example of how not to write without providing an example of how to write using her suggested method. It affected my reading of the article. Then I note that Aniruddha G. asked for the rewrite and was not given one. Maybe the line should have been deleted from the source article as ineffective, but if I was editing that article I would have had to suggest a better way to provide the information and I think the author of this article would have made a much stronger and more convincing argument if she had provided one.

Lastly, I appreciate the writing of E. Mike S. when he comments that we need to write with the idea of "sparing the adjective for the vivid verb." And note how the alliterative use of the adjective vivid improves the sentence.

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