The Ironic Life of Adverbs and Adjectives

by John Caruso

Adverbs and adjectives intoxicate with their promise of description and clarity. But beware! Overuse leads to laziness and vague writing. A dependence on modifiers can leave you with a group of words that don’t say much at all. Would you rather have a character that “drinks quickly,” or one who “gulps”? Would you rather have a character that has ” splotchy, red skin” or one who is “ruddy”?

Scan your work. Do you have a lot of the tell-tale “ly” words? Do you rely on adverbs to punch up your dull verb choices? Pick a work in progress and list your verbs. Do you find many of them are crutched with adverbs? Now go through and take a look at your nouns. Does it appear that you’re depending on the adjectives to convey the message?

Consider these two paragraphs:

1. The shy, frightened boy named Paul quickly hid when he heard the terrifying bullies loudly making their way through the park. Under the rusty slide, he waited anxiously for the bullies to go past. Paul bit his thin, boyish lip until the scary bullies finally left. When they did, he audibly sighed and continued his long, careful walk home, hoping he could deftly avoid the mean boys.

2. Paul heard the bullies before he saw them. His heart galumphed as he rifled through his options. He considered making a dash through the playground, but those sixth graders knew how to hunt. The teeter-totter and the swings afforded no cover. Just before the thugs rounded the corner, Paul ducked under the slide, staining his shirt with rust. Better rust than blood, he thought as he cowered. He sucked his lips into his mouth and tried to slow his breathing like Houdini did in the movie he saw last week. On the other side of the slide, the bullies joked about pushing Lisa Bauer into her locker. When the cackles passed with the patrol, Paul eased out from under the slide. He nibbled his fingernail and decided to take Larch Avenue home, hoping to avoid another encounter.

In the first paragraph, we find a lot of adverbs hanging out with a lot of bland verbs. We also find adjectives used to describe Paul, the bullies, the slide, and so on. While this paragraph may tell us what’s going on, it is dull and lifeless. We get the information, but we don’t get tension.

In the second example, we feel Paul’s fright and anxiety because we experience it with him. We’re not just told, “Paul is frightened” or “Paul is anxious.” Instead, we see him panic. We see him emulate Houdini. We are presented with a tangible example of why he should fear the bullies (pushing Lisa Bauer into her locker). We see him nibble his nails.

In each instance, the ACTION remained the same, but the WORD CHOICE differed. Like a sauce to a meal, adverbs and adjectives should enhance and compliment your writing. In the end, using too many modifiers sucks the life out of writing, renders it listless. Oh, the ironies of life!

© 2003 by John Caruso

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