Bolder Strokes

Clifton Fadiman once remarked, “The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.” While I don’t have the temerity to make sweeping statements of that sort, I do cull quite a few adjectives during the course of any edit. Here are three primary areas in which my pencil (virtual these days) crosses them out.

The first is straightforward. When an adjective describes a strong noun, it usually can be jettisoned. If a book’s proceedings “descend into a cataclysmic maelstrom,” you need to stop and ask yourself: how much is “cataclysmic” really adding to “maelstrom,” which in itself is an expressive noun? I would strike out the adjective.

A second common area is the sentence with compound adjectives. If she had “an invigorating, refreshing swim,” I as a reader ask myself: what’s the difference between “invigorating” and “refreshing”? I guess they are slight variants, but is that worth the extra verbiage? (I will note, if you’re using double adjectives to vary sentence structure within a paragraph, that change in rhythm may very well be worth the additional word.) A similar example uses a conjunction: “She spoke in a softer and gentler voice.” Excuse me, but when most people’s voices become softer, they become gentler as well, don’t they? Again, are you splitting hairs? In most cases, I would advise you pick one and move on.

The third frequent mistake I see is using an adjective to garnish a cliché. If Sid “took his precise measure,” you’re merely disguising your laziness. The cliché popped into your mind, followed by the thought “That’s a cliché. Aw, throw in ‘precise,’ that’s better anyway.” Wrong, absolutely the wrong way to go about it. The problem is the cliché. Get rid of it and start over.

I should point out that this example falls into another camp as well: conflating two common phrases. A person “takes his measure” and he also makes “precise measurements.”  The two don’t belong together, except in your temporarily muddled mind. Gain clarity, and move on to a truly original idea.

Right there, “a truly original idea” is an example of when you need a modifier. That’s because “idea” is imprecise in nature, and it needs enhancement in order to reach a more delineated shade of meaning. That noun in your sentence is waving its hand at you, telling you it needs a little helper.

Exercise: Choosing strong nouns is secondary in importance only to choosing strong verbs. One way to do that is to examine the adjective you’re using. If it is striking, could you turn it into the noun? To use the example above, “cataclysm” might a better alternative to a more ordinary noun such as “riot.” Your word choice may have been right all along; you just put it in the wrong position in the sentence.

“If you need three adjectives to describe something, then you've probably chosen the wrong something.”
—Roger Rosenblatt

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

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