Prose is often described in physical terms. Famous authors are praised for their muscular or lean style while the work of less able writers is sometimes characterized as tired, flabby or clumsy. It’s almost as if there’s a type of psychological athleticism displayed in the selection of words and the manner in which they’re cemented together in a sentence. Well-constructed phrases, where attention has been paid to rhythm, length and punctuation, are said to flow or run. Those lacking such considerations stumble, drag and limp.
The well-defined stylistic musculature of good prose is generally achieved in the edit. When editing, ideally a writer removes any words that don’t fulfill a role in the sentence. In the long march of letters across the blank page each utterance should carry a semantic and aesthetic burden, and any slackers removed on the spot. Style guides for aspiring writers stress the kinds of words that should be culled, should they make it into your writing.
‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ George Orwell.
‘Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like
laughing at your own joke.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald.
‘Adjectives are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.’ Voltaire.
‘I was taught to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust
certain people in certain situations.’ Ernest Hemmingway.
This focus on excision presents the novice writer with a dilemma. On one hand they are being asked to write detailed prose, while on the other they are told that the class of words most frequently used to add detail (adjectives) can slow a sentence and impoverish their writng. The following is intended as an aid when considering the use of adjectives. I call it the Big Grey Elephant Redundancy test.
Redundancy: the state of being no longer needed or useful.
One of the ways adjectives are commonly misused is when they repeat information already present in a sentence. Consider the following two statements.
An elephant walked into a bar.
A big grey elephant walked into a bar.
What is the difference in the image inspired by the two sentences? I would suggest very little. Elephants are normally big and grey, therefore when one is described as such those adjectives are said to be redundant – there is no need for them in the sentence. Now consider the next example.
A small blue elephant walked into a bar.
Elephants are not usually small (except when they’re very young), and they’re most certainly not blue. Both of these adjectives are necessay because they provide aditional information that is needed for a reader to be fully informed of the situation.
Here’s another way of thinking about adjectives. Imagine they’re like money, and just like money you never have enough of them. You’d like to use or spend them all over the place but the economics of language dictate you must only invest them where they’ll have the most effect. By resisting the urge to expend your descriptive capital inappropiately you’ll be forced to sharpen your vocabulary – to use specific verbs and nouns that function without the unecessary support of adverbs and adjectives. By adhering to this practise you accumulate descriptive capital which can be spent on detail-poor vocabuary in need of semantic assistance.