Once again, I am going to ask you to think back to your formative years of schooling, when your teachers constantly reminded you of the differences between verbs, nouns, and adjectives.
The first two were easy to grasp; “doing” words and “naming” words. Fundamental components of the English language. Adjectives, however, may have seemed a little harder to pin down. “Describing words? What does it all mean??” your 8-year-old head thought, before you decided it was definitely time for a nap.
Well, as I am sure you are now well aware, an adjective helps us to understand the nature of a noun better. The use of them in writing is vital, as they eliminate ambiguity and help your reader have a clear image of what you’re talking about. To understand the importance of adjectives, we need only to look at where the word itself is derived from. “Adjective” originates from a Latin phrase that means “additional noun”; while it may not stand on its own like a name does, an adjective is crucially important in shaping how our readers think about the subjects of our sentences.
So, we know how important adjectives are. But, beware; not all adjectives are created equal! Lots of adjectives you come across (or use) everyday may be considered weak. Don’t worry, though. Weak adjectives are easy to identify and eradicate from your work.
What are weak adjectives?
Ineffective describing words are often referred to as being “gradable.” That is, they can be interpreted in a range of ways. Let’s look at an example.
The weather was okay.
My word! This is one of the most gradable uses of an adjective I’ve ever seen. Obviously, we get a vague idea of what this sentence is trying to convey to us; that the weather was not bad. But beyond that, we know nothing. Was the weather simply one step above bad? Was it passable? Was it good? Or does “okay” in this context mean the weather was fit for purpose, “fine” as it were? We just don’t know. I’d go ahead and grade this weak adjective an F.
The fact is, weak adjectives are probably working their way into your writing constantly. Every time you use “good”, “bad”, “happy”, "sad” there is a level of ambiguity. True, you can add a word like “very” to any of the above words to make them more precise – but please don’t. It doesn’t make weak adjectives any stronger. True – sometimes simple, base adjectives are the right choices for your work. But, more often than not, writing benefits from the precision of strong adjectives. Not only that, it will make your work livelier for the person who has to read it.
Is buying a thesaurus the answer?
Getting rid of weak adjectives is not something that is particularly difficult. You could buy a thesaurus and learn a swathe of new words. But there are always risks to this; I’m sure many of you remember the Friends episode in which Joey relied on a thesaurus so much while writing a letter that he ended up signing his name “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani.”
Since you’re reading a grammar blog, I don’t think any of you would fall into quite such an obvious trap, but thesauruses can entice us to use complex words that may be slightly out of our vocabulary. I’m going to tell you what my first-year English lecturer told me; “this does not make you look smart.” Quite the opposite.
How do I fix it?
The good news is, you already know plenty of strong adjectives. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that any adjective that is not gradable is strong. The easiest way to pick a non-gradable (and thus strong) adjective is by putting “very” in front of it and seeing if it 'sounds' correct. For example; the phrase “very good” sounds completely fine. That’s because good is a weak word that can be enhanced with “very”. But if I was to call something “very terrific”, you might have pause to consider if what I said makes any sense. “Terrific”, after all, is a very strong word – things are a long way past good if we’re at terrific. You don’t need to add anything to emphasize your meaning further. Simple words like these are all you need to spice your writing up; “awful”, “fantastic”, “ecstatic” – these are commonplace parts of the English language that are so much stronger than “bad”, “good”, “happy”.
If you’re still at a loss, Outwrite is now equipped to help you with your adjective needs. Plug your work in and see where you can make it more colorful and more precise.