Saturday, January 31, 2009

Adjectives and Adverbs: Should we use them?

The temptation when writing seems to be to use loads of adjectives and adverbs. Why are we so fond of them, when renowned writers, at least as far back as Mark Twain, speak of these parts of speech as if they were viruses?

Newspapers and magazines use word counts to manage the space dedicated to articles, opinions, and advertisements. Thinking back to my school days, when teachers (and professors) assigned essays in terms of pages or number of words, I remember losing points for coming up a paragraph short on a three-page essay.

In moments of desperation, when I started writing school assignments on computers, I played with line spacing and font size, edging up to 26-point line spacing and 12.5 font. Are editors and educators to blame for our affinity for adjectives and adverbs, for encouraging the padding that improved our acceptance rate on freelance assignments and bumped our English grades from middle B to B+ or even A-?

Does the very best writing include bucket loads of adjectives? How often should we use words like “very,” “great,” and “interesting”? A friend of mine traveled frequently to Finland during his days as a consultant. His Finnish friends commented that, for Americans (at least those of us in the United States), we always felt “good,” and everything was “interesting.”

Mark Twain suggested the following: “Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Do you agree or disagree?

Just answering yes or no would be too simple, so here is the challenge…

Write your best sentence, or provide a quote from your favorite writer. Keep the example to two or three sentences, please. And don’t wander down the middle of the road, you’re liable to get run over coming and going.


  1. I completely agree. If you're going to add color, add color. For example, "mustard." It's much more direct--and colorful--than a "really intense yellow." Tastes better, too.

  2. One of my favorite American authors is Ernest Hemmingway (even though I dislike cats) The beauty of his work is using the fewest possible words to be most descriptive.