How not to ‘adjectify’

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

It was a suggestion, not a rule. Adjectives can add to an image, but they can also weaken it.

Remember that by definition, an adjective is a modifier. So any time you want to use one, ask yourself why you need to modify the noun.

As we wrote a few years ago, adjectives can say “this is different from what you might think.” And they can get you into trouble. If you describe a politician as “an evangelical Republican,” you have singled him out from most other Republicans. Did you mean to? Or were you just adding some description? Remember, one person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “rabid religionist.” What did you mean by “evangelical”? What’s the relevance?

It is those adjectives that can weaken nouns rather than strengthen them. We’ve often talked about labels; some adjectives act as labels, effectively pointing to the noun as “different.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece (and elsewhere) about why there are “chick flicks” but no equivalent kind of “flicks” for guys, Gloria Steinem spoke to this effect:

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I realized the problem began with the fact that adjectives are mostly required of the less powerful. Thus there are “novelists” and “female novelists,” “African-American doctors” but not “European-American doctors,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” “transgender activists” but not “cisgender activists.”

As has been true forever, the person with the power takes the noun—and the norm—while the less powerful requires an adjective. 

If you want to use an adjective, think what its opposite might be. Would you use it then? That can help you decide whether you really need it, or whether that modification can go elsewhere, perhaps where its relevance is clearer.

If you are tempted to write “adopted daughter,” believing the adjective adds some interesting information about her, would you write “biological daughter” in the same context? If you wouldn’t, don’t adjectify her.

Now, you may ask, when can I use an adjective?

Sometimes you need an adjective to differentiate one thing from another, to tell someone to take the 5:04 train instead of the 5:15 train. Sometimes you want it to give a noun more authority or uniqueness. “A box” is just a box, but “a Tiffany blue box” connotes class, intrigue, jewelry.

Sometimes you want an adjective as a way of gussying up a noun because you just want something fancier or because you can’t come up with a more powerful word. Nothing wrong with that, most of the time.

But sometimes the adjectival train runs amok. Take the sentence “The brand-new, sparkling, 1.5-carat princess-cut diamond engagement ring looked great on her long, slender finger.” It’s trying to describe the appearance of a ring on a woman’s finger. But the number of adjectives overwhelms the image: The reader must keep all those images floating in her head without knowing what they apply to until she gets to the word “ring.” Which ones are necessary? It’s probably more effective to say “Her new, 1.5-carat diamond engagement ring sparkled on her slender finger.” You might even eliminate the word “diamond” if there’s a chance to introduce it (and the cut) somewhere else.

If you want advice to help you avoid adjectival pileups, don’t put more than three adjectives in front of a noun, and even those three had better be short.

Like Strunk and White’s admonition on using adverbs or adjectives in the first place, though, it’s just a suggestion. If you want to keep your readers hanging in the air, trying to juggle multiple modifications without a noun to hang them on, don’t be surprised if they just drop all the modifiers and move to the next article. And by “article,” we don’t mean “a,” “and,” and “the.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.