thoreau and the economics of adverbs and adjectives

“Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short.”
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

If you’ve ever taken a class on writing fiction, chances are you remember your instructor admonishing you to eliminate adjectives and adverbs from your writing. Or perhaps you were told to make a great effort to eliminate them ruthlessly (if you had my witty instructor). This advice applies just as well to nonfiction writing as it does to fiction.

Some writers believe that using gobs of adjectives and adverbs conveys erudition, emphasis, or importance. But to a discerning reader — your reader — it will convey precisely the opposite.

Why? Because most nouns and verbs already provide their own accompaniment. In the presence of a well-chosen noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs are redundant. Use them and your reader will assume one of two things: either that you lack the vocabulary, or that you don’t know the real meaning of the word.

In other words, taking the time to pick the right nouns and verbs conveys the message that you care about what you wrote. And your readers will care, too.

Still too abstract? Here’s a handy tip that I recommend for eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, using a metaphor that any businessman or -woman can understand: money.

Think of every noun and verb as having a fixed value. The effect of an misused adjective or adverb, then, is to dilute the value of that word. Think of it as a kind of “word inflation.” For example, if the noun snow was a $50 word, then refrerring to white snow would cheapen the word to $25. Cold, wet snow is worth less than $17.

Are you cheating your clients by cheapening your written product?

Sure, if you’re on deadline to produce a 1,000 word article by tomorrow, it makes life easier if you could count on 350 of those words being adjectives and adverbs. But just think of how much else of value you could pack into your piece using 350 well-chosen nouns and verbs. Maybe then there would be room for that revealing quote or that telling anecdote you were going to leave out.

Value your words. It will help you value your words.

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(To readers who are all fired up to point out that I wrote “unnecessary adverbs and adjectives” earlier — thus ignoring my own advice — here’s my snappy comeback: it’s actually an example of proper usage! Adjectives and adverbs are properly used as qualifiers, not emphasizers. I’m all for necessary adverbs and adjectives; I just suspect you’ll find that they are necessary only rarely. Like in that instance.)

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

5 thoughts on “thoreau and the economics of adverbs and adjectives”

  1. A big thank-you for this article! It has always bothered me (to excess, I admit) when people actually de-emphasize their point by trying to enhance it, e.g. “I really, truly believe that”, which makes it sound as though there are plenty of reasons NOT to believe it.

  2. Hi, Shirl —

    Thanks for your comment. Glad the article was useful! The example you provide is a classic instance of how adverbs and adverbs can instill doubt, and even suggest the opposite, of the intended message. As Shakespeare wrote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    And speaking of the Bard, I think a case can be made that adverbs and adjectives play a more useful role in spoken, rather than written, English. They add cadence and emphasis to a sentence that is said out loud, helping listeners prepare for, discern, and remember key words and phrases. But on paper, those properties tend to be flattened into the two-dimensional surface of the page (or monitor) and lost.

    I guess that helps to explain why I prefer to hear poems and never enjoyed reading a play!

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