Adjectives are a bit like Oreos.
They’re alluring, they’re tasty—they feel good—and yet too many in quick succession can make you sick.
Ben Yagoda, who wrote “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” quips, “Kicking things off with adjectives is a little like starting a kids’ birthday party with the broccoli course.”
That it is good to avoid them is one of the few points on which the sages of writing agree. Thus Voltaire: “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” Thus William Zinsser: “Most adjectives are … unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”
Our patron saints of pedantry, Strunk and White, also cautioned against flowery prose:
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech … In general, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.
This is not to dump on all adjectives. Mark Twain perhaps said it best when he advised judicious, strategic use of descriptive language. As he wrote in a letter to a student:
They [adjectives] weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.
Of course, not all adjectives are created equal. Some are delightful; many are quite useless. Almost all should be used sparingly. Here are a handful that can go fly a kite into linguistic oblivion:
This could mean anything from “The New York Times Best Seller list” to “Most Copies of Self-Published Autobiography Ordered and Stashed in Basement.” It’s usually closer to the latter.
This is another term that’s mindlessly, haphazardly splashed onto résumés and into bios. It’s meant to add gravitas and professional heft; it does not.
3. Handcrafted, handmade or hand-dipped (especially “hand-dipped”).
Restaurants love touting offerings made and touched by all sorts of “hands.” Whose hands? Have they been washed recently?
I’ll take whatever flavor is “sterile machine-dipped,” thank you.
Hannibal Lecter was quite “motivated.” Be more specific, please.
6. Awesome (also see “amazing”).
This word has become as flavorful, meaningful and appealing as a stick of gum that’s been chewed for seven hours.
In the same infernal vein as “impactful,” you see “quality” incorrectly used as an adjective all over this great land. “Quality auto parts.” “Quality rock music.” “Quality soup.”
“High-quality” is more precise. So is “low-quality.”
8. Cutting-edge (also see “unique”).
Chalk this one up to bitterness over a recent saw incident, but I can’t think of an instance where this term is necessary.
Maybe if you’re making a figure skating pun? Nah, just use something else.
Whenever I receive mail emblazoned with “IMPORTANT,” I immediately sort it into the “DEFINITELY NOT IMPORTANT” pile—which is located at the bottom of my trash can.
Will you add which adjectives make your eye twitch? Include your nominations in the comments, please.