Adjective intolerance

September 26th, 2012

I’ve suddenly developed an allergy to adjectives. I’ve had to ingest too many during a recent thriller binge. Just as having cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for supper can make you feel sluggish and bloated, so too many adjectives can mean it’s time for a literary de-tox.

Take this. I’ve changed the actual adjectives so as not to breach anyone’s copyright (or upset anyone, we’ve all got our writing faults). ‘Mr X looked up to see a short, stocky man – mid 50s and wearing a beautifully-cut Savile row suit – coming towards  him. Below his wispy, mid-brown hair, alarm was written across his lean, pale face.’

Is anyone else feeling like a ferry in a storm, tossed between ‘short, stocky’ and ‘lean, pale’? Or think that describing height, weight and hair colour makes a story read like an item from Crimewatch?  Or is it just me? Did I get out of the wrong side of bed this morning with alot of paperback thriller adjectives coming back up the wrong way?

One of the writing blogs I picked up recently from Twitter was titled ‘Suddenly the inappropriate adjective crashed into an iron bar’. I can’t remember its source, but it was great, and may be the source of my sudden sensitivity. Adverbs have long been the white plastic high heels of literature (along with exclamation marks, which will always be considered too vulgar to be invited to a Booker prize evening), but surely the humble adjective deserves a place in our books? Or should that be the glorious adjective? Or what about the short, stocky adjective with the lean, pale face?

To be fair, I’ve just read a magnificent piece of description by John Le Carre of Perry’s first meeting with Mr Dima. It’s half a page of finely tuned adjectives linked together with the odd noun and verb. Mr Dima walked straight off the page for me. So maybe it’s not adjectives per se, but having them walk in two-by-two, like Edwardian duchesses being taken into dinner. Short, stocky. Lean, pale. Wispy, mid-brown.

Adjective misuse, like drug misuse, seems to be no respecter of class, and can be found on the snootiest bookshelves as well as up the Marks & Spencer and Topshop end of quality commercial writing. Nor is adjective overdose necessarily a female writing trait – all examples quoted here were by male writers.

If we get rid of adjectives altogether we’ll all finish up writing like Hemingway or Jack Kerouac and there is only so much of that I can take, thriller-binge or no. So has anyone got a cure for adjective intolerance?


2 Comments already, do join in...

  1. Jon K Says:

    October 13th, 2012 at 1:32 am

    Wonderfully exciting, insightful, thoughtful analysis. It is a balancing act is it not? Too much is overkill, too little leaves the reader dry.

    Nice post. JK

  2. Nina Bell Says:

    October 15th, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Thank you, and thanks for commenting. I am trying to go on an ‘adjective’ diet – like having just one square of chocolate at a time. But one square at a time was never my strength.

Comments: please feel free to join (or start!) the conversation about this article:

Please be aware: all comments are moderated, which means they're checked and have to be approved before they appear live on the site (so there may be a short delay).

Your comment on this article:

Please complete the Anti-Spam question: What's the Sum of 7 + 10 ?