Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are adjectives the enemy of the writer?

Duff (2010) freely available from PhotoBucket
The sun sunk in seconds, shimmering and hesitating just above the still waters before it disappeared for the evening.  As it faded it cast its apricot hues through the clouds which hovered low in the sky.
A beautiful sunset

Hello Grammophiles

An oft used adage in journalism is that the adjective is the enemy of the writer.  (Voltaire said they were the 'enemy of the noun'; Hemingway said they were the 'weak writer's crutch'.)

For example, I could say 'it's a splendidly gorgeous day today'  (which it is in Adelaide on this December day).   Alternatively, I could say 'the sun is warming my shoulders, glancing off the footpath and illuminating the leaves on the trees'.

Of course, used sparingly and effectively, adjectives can add colour and cleverness to the writing (as indicated by my esteemed colleague Brady, below).  

In academic writing, adjectives can be florid and over-the-top, weakening a set of data or a rational argument.

For example, 'numerous authors argue...'  is weaker than 'Smith (2000), Jones (2003) and Brown (2005) argue...

How does this:

'Smith's (2000) findings were a notable example of how millions of families use social technology.'

Compare with this:

'Smith's (2000) study of 150 households across three continents suggested children between the age of 13 and 18 preferred the use of Facebook, while their parents still tended to use email.'

Which paper, do you think, will attract more marks?

Can you think of more examples where actions speak louder  than words (as the old saying goes)?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As you point out, I think a writer's diction is highly dependent on the purpose of the writing and on the effects on the reader. Some writers do quite well with what would be considered excessive use of adjectives if attempted in other contexts. In particular, this time of year, Jean Shepherd's adjective-heavy writing comes to mind. In fact, he seems even to "adjective-ize" nouns and verbs with impressive success.