Adjectives Are Like Pizza Toppings

“A world without adjectives would still have the sun rising and setting, the flowers blooming, the trees bearing fruits, the birds singing, and the bees stinging.”
AA Patarawan

I like pizza. Authentic New York style pizza simply done. Dough, sauce, cheese. A sprinkling fresh of basil and a drizzle of good olive oil. The marriage of creamy mozzarella (perhaps a sprinkling of parmesan), sweet tomato sauce and crisp dough charred at the crusts is pizza perfection. If I’m feeling wild, I’ll go for pepperoni. But nothing else. Ever. Other toppings muddy the beautiful simplicity of a great pizza.

When it comes to writing, all too often children are taught that the more toppings they pile on to their literary pizza, the better. Throw on some sweetcorn? Sure. Add some tuna? Why not. Pineapple? Chuck it on. And the end result is a confused mess of tastes and textures that destroys what was a thing of beauty. It’s writing that’s full of sound and fury, but often signifying nothing.

And it typically begins with three little words. Three words I have come to dread. Add more detail.The teacher looks at little Jimmy’s writing, sees it’s flatter than a Dutch hiking expedition and needs some oomph. And so it starts. That’s great but you need to… add more detail. And everyone knows that this is code. It’s code for Stick in a few more adjectives. That’ll make your writing better.

And so Jimmy looks at his last sentence. Insects buzzed among the flowers and birds sang from the trees.

He’s been taught that using an adjective is always better than not. That using two is better than one. That you must use a comma between them. (You don’t.) With this in mind, he adds more detail. Like a demented Domino’s cook, he goes at it, hurling topping upon topping upon topping. If an adjective springs to mind, on it goes. Tiny black, insects buzzed among the pretty, blue flowers and little, tweeting, brown birds sang from the huge, green, leafy trees.

And almost inevitably making the sentence worse in the process.

It’s not that all adjectives are inherently bad and should be yanked out as if they were visible nostril hair. It’s just that not all adjectives are the life and soul of the party either. They are as likely to be that guy who corners you at the buffet and talks endlessly about his foot odour problem. And all too often in the primary classroom, when it comes to adjectives the more that are crammed into every nook and cranny the better – as if writing were the literary equivalent of Britain’s Biggest Hoarders.

So think good pizza – less is more. With that in mind, here’s my ten tips to improve children’s use of adjectives.

Use precise nouns

A writing lesson with a Year 2 class.  We are describing the flora and fauna of the forest as Little Red sets off for Granny’s cottage in the woods. And one child writesTiny, little, brown birds flew through the trees.

The superfluous use of both tiny and little aside for the moment, I ask her, Do you mean sparrows? She looks at me in the way a paralytic iguana might look at the Complete Works of Shakespeare – a blank stare. I try again. Starlings. Nothing. Swallows? She knows chickens, but I’m fairly sure she’s not picturing chickens flying through the trees in her idyllic woodland scene. 

The great E.B. White wrote, ‘The adjective has not been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun of a tight place.’ And birds is tighter than Ebenezer’s Christmas bonus. The thing is, If you know the noun sparrow, you don’t need to add the descriptors tiny and little and brown because the word sparrow includes this information. The author writes sparrow and the reader pictures tiny, little brown birds. Job done.

When adding more detail to Insects buzzed among the flowers and birds sang from the trees, don’t prop up those weak nouns with adjectives; swap them out for something a little more precise. Bumbleees buzzed among the foxgloves and bluebells, and finches sang from the oaks and maples. Not an adjective in sight, yet far more evocative of an English woodland. Or with the right nouns we might visit the African Serengeti. Termites crawled among the dropseeds, and ibis called from the marulas and acacias.

Writing the opening scene of Macbeth as a narrative these past few weeks, Year 5 children were taught glenmoorloch and heathgorsethistle and heather among others to describe that wild Scottish landscape. These precise nouns anchor the writing to a particular place – it could only be Scotland – and give the reader confidence in the writer. They know their stuff. We’re in safe hands.

So stronger nouns first. Follow up with adjectives if they are still required. But they might just not be.

Purpose matters

There are times when we might want up our adjective count and times when we might want to lower it, depending upon what we are trying to achieve with our writing. In narrative writing, for example, we might up our adjective count during descriptive passages. When writing about glensmoors and lochs in our Macbeth piece, we described them as bleak, barrendesolateremoteruggedbrackishinkywindswept and more. Adjectives encourage the reader to slow down, linger a while, savour the description. But when capturing action we might want to lower our adjective count. Compare these two short passages describing a battle.

Warriors charged into the fray, screaming cries of battle. Shields slammed one against another. Swords slashed and hacked; axes rose and bit into flesh. Men screamed and dropped to the ground, blood soaking the earth.

Frenzied warriors charged into the fray, screaming furious cries of battle. Huge, wooden shields slammed one against another. Long, sharp swords slashed and hacked; heavy, iron axes rose and bit into soft flesh. Dying men screamed and fell, their thick, crimson blood soaking the greedy earth.

With almost one in three words being a verb and not an adjective in sight, the first version is a whirlwind of action, capturing the wild, frenzy of battle. By comparison the addition of the adjectives to the second renders it slow and ponderous. It has lost the vitality of the earlier version.

Take the Year 3s who ,when writing recipes, would compose adjective-heavy sentences such as Slice the huge, round, red, juicy tomatoes. The aim of a recipe is to communicate the instructions clearly and concisely. Adjectives for the most part get in the way. And you know what? I’m not an idiot (at least not most of the time). You write Slice the tomatoes and I’m just about compus mentus enough to figure out you mean those round red juicy things.

So, know your purpose. And adjust your adjective density to suit.

Make every word count

In the essential guide to English writing, The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr writes, ‘A sentence should include no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.’

And that’s the problem with describing the tomatoes as roundred and juicy. It is unnecessary. The reader already knows that a tomato is round, red and juicy, so writing it adds nothing new. It’s an superfluous line, a redundant engine part. It’s a pleonasm – the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning.

Sitting in on a year 4 writing lesson, I watch the teacher model how to describe the BFG. He writes a [blank] giant on the board and asks the class to think of good adjectives they could use to describe the BFG. After a brief chat, a hand goes up, and a boy says hugeFantastic, the teacher replies, and he writes it down. And I’m sitting there thinking that when he wrote a giant  on the boardI wasn’t picturing a tiddler. Adding huge to giantbrings nothing new to the table other than inaccuracy, for the BFG is not a huge giant – he’s pretty much the same size as other giants in the story.

Children love to fill their writing with pleonasms and all too often it goes unchallenged, cementing the idea that all adjectives are inherently good.  The hot sun. Well, you don’t say. If the sun isn’t hot we’ve got bigger problems than the quality of the writing. Her fatal death. I don’t know many who come back from it. Future plans. As opposed to those plans you make for the past? We have a word for future plans. It’s plans. Or my personal favourite from a Year 3 child writing about the ocean – the wavy waves.

A simple strategy for encouraging children to consider whether a word is superfluous to requirements. is to have them picture a noun in their heads. Let’s say we are writing about a dog, have them visualise dog. Then add an adjective to the noun – furry dog – and ask, Did the picture in your head change? Or was the dog furry already? In most cases the picture hasn’t changed, the adjective has added no new information, so is an unnecessary addition. Now picture a lazy dog, you say. Did the picture in your head change this time? And for most children it has, so we now have a potentially useful adjective that adds new information to our noun.

Children are taught that adjectives describe nouns, and of course that’s true. Neil Gaiman, however, puts it like this: ‘You can take for granted that people know more or less what a street, a shop, a beach, a sky, an oak tree look like. Tell them what makes this one different.’ A word that describes a noun is a low bar for adjective selection. A well chosen adjective describes that which distinguishes our street, shop or beach, our sky or oak tree from any other. So when describing that dog, tell us what is different or unusual about it. Perhaps it’s ferocious or clumsy or excitable.

Another quick approach to tackling pleonasm is to simply ask, Are all [nouns] [adjective]? For example, Are all giants huge? If the answer is yes (and in this case it most certainly is) perhaps we don’t need huge to describe our giant. For older children you might change the word all for most. Ask young children Are all carrots orange? and you’ll likely get a resounding Yes. But older children will point out purple and yellow varieties or argue that if it’s mouldy it might be green. But Are most carrots orange? will provide a Yes answer. And if most carrots are orange, our reader is likely to be picturing orange carrots, so it adds nothing new to the noun.

Empty the mental closet

Words securely stored in long-term memory sit within complex schema, every word connected to an array of connotations. When I think of the word desert, words such as dryhot, sand and empty are quickly activated. Most of these connotations are fairly obvious and highly unoriginal.

Look at this picture of a cloud [fig.1]. Which adjectives first come to mind?

[fig.1]

The chances are two of the first words you thought of were white and fluffy. Should I write about such a cloud, I am able to recognise that these first thoughts are obvious and lack originality. I’m able to push past these first thoughts, think more deeply and come up with ivoryfrothycreamy or gossamer

But all too often children don’t push past their initial thoughts. They think of the word cloud, white and fluffy quickly follow and so white fluffy cloud appears on the page. To encourage children to to clamber over the junk in their mental closet, show a picture of a noun (say the noun out loud too). Give the children thirty seconds to write down any adjectives that come to mind. The time allowance may vary, but aim for enough time to get initial thoughts on paper, but not so much time they push beyond them. Make a class list of the most common adjectives. These are the words that most people will likely think of, so are the very adjectives we ought not to use. Let us think again and see if we can come up with something a little more interesting we might say about the cloud.

Move beyond the visuals

When using the above strategy with children, the adjectives that invariably spring to mind are those that describe what nouns look like – their colour, shape and size – followed by what they feel like – their surface texture or temperature.  And while in many cases these are exactly the adjectives we need, in others we want adjectives that serve the writing in different ways. While it might be helpful to paint a thumbnail sketch of a character who has long, black hair and wears red shoes, if we want a character-driven narrative, telling our reader that this character is cruel or kind, brave or timid, carefree or uptight is more interesting. Unless our character lives in a world where long, black hair is a sign of great good or that red shoes are gifted to only the most wise, then knowing our character is timid is more likely to move a narrative forward. Timid characters will behave in particular ways; those who wear red shoes won’t.

And we want children use a broader range of vocabulary. Being limited to describing what nouns look like is like painting with only one colour. Sure, there are times that it can have impact, but for the most part a broader palette will produce better results. Children ought to be able to draw on an increasingly wide range of adjectives in their writing. 

  • colour – blue, scarlet, pallid, azure
  • shapes – round, square, narrow, winding
  • size – huge, tiny, vast, compact, heavy
  • age – old, fresh, decrepit, new
  • material – iron, marble, porcelain, velvet
  • qualities & opinions – kind, ugly, bleak, forlorn
  • touch – smooth, jagged, lumpy, icy
  • sound – loud, silent, shrill, lilting
  • smell & taste – sweet, bitter, acrid, salty
  • origin (in place & time) – local, distant, French, Victorian

This broader range of adjectives will need to be explicitly taught if we want all children to have them in their writerly toolkit.

Prioritise BOGOF (buy one get one free) adjectives, those that carry layers of meaning. Before writing about the sky in our Macbeth pieces, we examine a selection of adjectives – ashencadaverousdeadgreyheavyleaden. They are all potentially useful adjectives, but the BOGOF adjectives more so. Ashen and cadaverous both give us grey but also connote with dead (ashen mostly describing greyness with a suggestion of death; cadaverous mostly describing death with a suggestion of greyness). Leaden similarly gives us grey but also heavy. When writing about clouds we describe them as bruised which gives us not only colour – a motley patchwork of blue, purple, green, yellow and black – but also injury or pain. BOGOF adjectives don’t just count. They count twice. 

Analyse good writing.

One evening, as Jub set off with her full sack, she noticed scarves of mist draped in the trees. One of them noosed itself round Jub’s neck, soft and damp, and made her shiver.

By the time she had reached the middle of the forest the mist had thickened and Jub could only see a little way ahead. The shadowy trees looked villainous: tall ghouls with long arms and twiggy fingers. Bushes crouched in the fog as though they were ready to pounce like muggers. Jub hurried on.

“Hello, my small deario.”

Jub jumped. A twisted old woman with a face like the bark of a tree and horrible claw hands was standing on the path in front of Jub. She had fierce red eyes like poisonous berries.

In this passage from Carol Ann Duffy’s The Lost Happy Endings, there are twenty-four nouns or noun phrases (twenty-seven if you separate expanded noun phrases such as the bark of a tree into two smaller ones). Of the twenty-four, thirteen – just over half – employ no adjectives; eight – exactly a third – employ a single adjective; and three – a measly eighth – employ two adjectives. No noun phrases employ three or more. There are an additional three adjectives (softdamp and villainous) that refer to nouns (or in one case a pronoun) but do not form part of a noun phrase. (I’ve discounted the proper noun Jub as we would rarely expect to see adjectives before a name.) And note where there are two adjectives before a noun, commas are not used to separate them.

Having analysed many passages of text with children, these numbers are fairly typical of good narrative writing: approximately half of nouns are adjective free, a third described by one, a smattering by two. Rarely do we find three or more. As the American memoirist, essayist and novelist, Roger Rosenblatt, says, ‘If you need three adjectives to describe something, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong something.’

Good writers use adjectives sparingly, and they rarely pile adjectives atop one another before nouns. But don’t take my word for it, take Roald Dahl’s. In a rather curt letter to an aspiring author he writes:

I have read your story. I don’t think it’s bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely, it is better to say ‘She was a tall girl with a bosom’ than ‘She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom’, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.

Quite.

But let’s look closer still at which nouns Duffy adorns with adjectives. They are largely clustered within two sections: paragraphs two and four. Paragraph two describes the imagined terrors of the foggy forest. It follows o0n from first paragraph – Jub walking through the forest – but the fear factor is dialled up several notches, and the adjectives are part of this dialling up process. We get shadowyvillainoustwiggytall and long to paint the forest as dark, as a thing that dwarfs Jub that is alive with evil intent. But even so, our nouns are only deserving of one adjective apiece at most.

It is only when we meet the villain of the piece, the twisted old woman with horrible claw hands and fierce red eyes, that the adjectives, just like the mist, begin to thicken. Duffy knows exactly where to deploy them for maximum effect. Equally importantly, she knows where not to. So we hurry, almost adjective free, alongside Jub through the forest as it begins to darken and are made to focus our attention upon the terrors in the night, the twisted old woman chief among them.

And this is not an exercise that can only be undertaken with older, more able children. Explore The Gruffalo in the same way with Year 2s and you will find only two noun phrases with more than one adjective in the entire book: the little brown mouse and the deep dark forest.

Not every noun needs an adjective

One of the tools in my toolbox to help children consider which nouns might benefit from the addition of adjectives is to use a variant of cloze procedure. Before every noun, place a gap where an adjective (or even two) might be used. Like so:

A __________ woman lay inside a __________ coffin, asleep… or worse. The __________ figure had __________ skin and __________ hair that hung in __________ tresses around her __________ neck and __________ shoulders. Her __________ figure was clothed in a __________ dress, a __________ veil covered her __________ face, and she held a __________ bunch of what might once have been __________ roses. And over her __________ skin, her __________ hair, her __________ dress clung a map of __________ spider threads.

 Provide a list of adjectives beneath, which are to be placed in the gaps.

black                    decayed                ghostly                 long            

pale                     porcelain              red                       silvery

smooth                 white

The key is that there are fewer adjectives than spaces. Children must place either one or two adjectives into the spaces, but they may only use each adjective once. They will need to decide which nouns are worthy of an adjective. And they really ought to be able to justify why they might spend two adjectives on a single noun. It helps to provide children with a goal for their selection. Place the adjectives before the nouns to make the passage as creepy as you can, for example. Discuss which nouns were deemed adjective-worthy and which not.

Paint with pastels

I’m writing with Year 4s. It’s a haunted house story. We’ve looked at a range of adjectives that we might use in place of scaredAnxious, terrified, twitchy, nervouspetrifieduneasyapprehensivetimid. We’ve discussed each and have placed them on a scale from the least nervous to the most. I think we’ve done enough for them to select the right adjective at the right moment. I begin modelling: The ______ boy opened the gate and tiptoed along the garden path. I’m hoping for perhaps apprehensive or anxious, uneasy or twitchy. But no. It’s petrified and terrified all the way. I recall out earlier conversation about petrified and terrified and point them to our previously sorted list, drawing their attention to the fact that they describe the greatest fear. I explain that if someone was terrified or petrified they probably wouldn’t enter the house, that we might save those words for when our character meets the ghost in the attic.

Another time I am writing subversive fairy tales in Year 5. (We’ve read Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes). Goldilocks clambers onto Daddy Bear’s chair, and we describe the size of the chair. And the suggestions come in. Towering. MountainousColossal. Now the chair was big, certainly large, and perhaps even huge. But mountainous?

Children often paint with words in primary colours. They want to use the biggest and boldest of adjectives and are less likely to select subtler shades for their writing. Understandably they want to use the shiny new words they’ve recently learned. And for some reason more applies to the number of letters in adjectives as well as the number of adjectives themselves. Huge and large stand no chance against mountainous and colossal.

But sometimes people are simply happy and not ecstatic, sad not inconsolable, trees tall and not towering, apples red and not crimson. Sometimes quiet and simple, not grand and showy, are the right tools for the job.

David Almond is a master of the simple, understated adjective. In this extract from Kit’s Wildnerness, our protagonist, Kit and his friend Allie are taken by Askew, a wild and dangerous character, to play the game called Death.

Allie didn’t look at me. We set off across the soaked ground. Great pools of water in the grass. Water vapour rising and drifting white beneath the weak rays of the sun. Cold breeze coming from the river. Clouds low and grey, scudding slowly over the wilderness. Feet splashing, trousers soaked, not a word spoken. The long wet grass. Standing there in silence. Jax’s bark. Askew’s hand. The door drawn back. We go down, into the drenched den.

It’s a tense journey. But told with great simplicity. Note the choice of adjectives: soakedgreatwhiteweakcoldlowgreylongwetdrenched. Simple and monosyllabic, their brevity add to the silence, the emptiness, the flatness of tone.

If in doubt…

Back to the Year 5s and Macbeth. One child says something that I’m sure you have heard a million times – I can’t think of a word to describe… He’s thought long and hard, he’s looked back at the vocabulary work we’ve done earlier in the week and has come up blank. My advice to him? Then don’t. I certainly wouldn’t send him off to hunt down a word in a thesaurus. As Stephen King says:

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

If you have to look up a word, you don’t know it well enough. And if you don’t know it well enough, you’ll likely misuse it. As I found to my dismay when one of the children described the wyrd sisters’ dishevelled teeth.

So if in doubt, leave it out.

Adjectives are like left legs

When I watch lessons in which children revise their writing, the process is largely additive, focused upon more. More ideas. More detail! And of course, adjectives are often the main beneficiary with them being squeezed left, right and centre into the writing. But like left legs in the Hokey Cokey, adjectives can be taken out as well as put in. To improve a phrase or sentence, we might need to eschew a beastly adjective or two.

Take this paragraph from one of the children’s Macbeth narrative.

Unforgiving fog hung over the depths of the Lowlands and the peaks of the Highlands like a shroud. As rain lashed ever more angrily, as lightning arced ever more wildly, coiling shadows emerged from the abyss. The villainous shadows suddenly exploded and a trio of figures transformed into three skeletal, arcane, dark crones.

By and large, the adjectives are kept in check. Those that are used have been well chosen – unforgiving, coilingvillainous. Strong nouns – Lowlands, Highlandsshroudshadowsabysstriofigurescrones – and verbs – lashedarcedemergedexplodedtransformed – do most of the heavy lifting. And if anything is deserving of more than one adjective, it’s the witches. But perhaps skeletal, arcane, dark crones is a little too much. Crone already carries so much information (ugly and old and female) that adding skeletal, arcane and dark pushes it too far. Perhaps dark is unnecessary – they are emerging from shadow after all so is already implied. Perhaps we might remove skeletal (and use it elsewhere) as we already have the visual information contained in crone. Perhaps arcane alone is the stronger choice to capture their secretive, mysterious natures.

Children will need this modelling, so that they better understand that sometimes the right choice. They need to see skilled writers – you – removing as well as adding.

And they ought learn that just like pizza and toppings, sometimes the best adjective is no adjective at all.


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