When I think about adjectives and adverbs, Schoolhouse Rock educatisements (education + advertisement) come to mind.
Do you remember them?
I used them to teach parts of speech to my Freshman English students. The first season of the Schoolhouse Rock aired in 1973, so if you don’t remember them or have never heard them, you can click on the links below.
As I re-listened to “Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” I focused on writing, not as a teacher but as a writer, and laughed at some of the concepts that the educatisements taught.
Words, of course, are a writer’s friend, but I’ve read lots of books and articles about the OVERUSE of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, someone suggested that you write without any adjectives or adverbs.
Seriously? The minute I begin a sentence with “the” I have used an adjective.
So, what’s the deal?
The deal is that over-using adjectives and adverbs stops us from using more precise nouns and verbs.
I expected my high school students to understand the basic definition of all parts of speech.
ADJECTIVE: A word that describes a noun or pronoun. It tells the reader “which one,” “what kind,” or “how many.”
ADVERB: A word that describes a verb, adjective, or another adverb. It informs the reader about “when,” “where,” “how,” “why,” and “to what extent.”
I then went on to making nouns into adjectives. Add a specific suffixes (-able/-ible, -al, -ful, -ic, -ive, -less, -ous) to nouns to get certain adjectives.
Adverbs are formed by adding -ly/-ily, but there are some words (fast, well, most, very) are adverbs in their own right.
It is the excessive overuse of adjectives and adverbs that bogs down a reader’s progress. Try the following sentence.
The large, gray African elephant at the small, local zoo on the outskirts of the small, rural town walked extremely slowly and deliberately from one side of the small and cramped exhibit space to the other side of the exhibit space.
Tedious to read? I think so.
Eliminating unnecessary adjectives and adverbs makes a writer use of a broader vocabulary and tightens writing.
Let’s look at the above example.
“Large, gray” are two words that the sentence doesn’t need. Most elephants are large and I’ve never seen an elephant any other color. On the other hand, “African” identifies that it is not the “Asian” variety.
Depending on the context of this sentence, I can get away with eliminating “small,” “outskirts,” “rural,” and “town”.
I can take the phrases “walked extremely slowly and deliberately” and “from one side of the small … to the other side” and condense it by using precise language. I can also eliminate the repetition of “exhibit space.”
Now the sentence reads:
The African elephant at the local zoo lumbered and paced his cramped enclosure.
And let’s not forget that phrases and clauses function as adjectives and adverbs as well.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO AS A WRITER.
FIRST: When you write the first draft of anything, write everything down. Your mind is brainstorming and some of those ideas dissolve like the colors in a morning sunrise if you don’t get them written. Don’t edit as you work, because some ideas, like a specific sunrise, will never come back. A duplicate idea is rarely exactly the same as the original.
SECOND: As you read through the first draft, use different colored pens to mark the adjectives and adverbs.
THIRD: Look at the adjectives you’ve used first, sentence by sentence. Then, the adverbs. Description that repeats common knowledge can be eliminated, just like the words “large” and “gray” in the example above were eliminated. Some descriptive words can be replaced by stronger nouns and verbs. Even weak descriptive words can be replaced with more precise words.
FINALLY: Look for places where the description is weak, where it does not evoke the senses of the reader. Here you can include only the adjectives and adverbs necessary.