The Big, Bad, Inexcusable Case of Using Too Many Adjectives





Mark Twain is attributed to saying “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”


Using adjectives in your writing is not wrong, but the dictum of “show, don’t tell” has led people to the practice of overusing adjectives when they write. Is using adjectives wrong? No, it isn’t. But there is a tendency to overdo it when trying to accurately describe something. I have also seen the overuse of adjectives when students are trying to meet a word count requirement.


One rule of thumb of avoiding overuse of adjectives is to eliminate adjectives that aren’t pertinent to a sentence’s meaning. You can overplay your hand here trying hard to be accurate with your description.


This leads to a second rule of thumb. Sometimes we use adjectives instead of using a more precise word. Increasing your vocabulary will help alleviate this. I also use a thesaurus when I am looking for just the right word. But there is a trap here as well. You can also go “big word happy” when using a thesaurus. It is true that you should use the correct word, but should also keep it simple. You can definitely tell when a person is digging into a thesaurus to come up with “big words” to make him or her look smarter, more important, or give weight to the writing. Like I said, it can be pretty obvious when you go thesaurus trolling.


A third rule of thumb is that using too many adjectives throw off the pace of the writing; they can bog down a sentence to almost a crawl. Too many adjectives just becomes a list of words, rather than a sentence that flows easily off the page, and is pleasant to the ear.


I would never say to get rid of adjectives from your writing. If you heavily use adjectives I would encourage you to cut back and see how your writing differs. If you find your meaning is not clear without certain adjectives, by all means include them. But if you find that your writing is clear and still retains its meaning, perhaps it’s time to weed out those extra adjectives from your writing.



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