I have a love/hate relationship with adjectives.
The one I hate most is “amazing,” which has replaced “awesome” on my guano list.
On American television (commercials, newscasts, interviews), “amazing” is the adjective, adverb, and noun of choice to describe everything from home loans and weight loss to adopting a dog. It sets my teeth on edge, and it is meaningless. They tell me their trip was amazing. What do I now know about the trip? Nothing. These shoes are amazing! That mountain is amazing! I feel amazing! What do the shoes, the mountain and the trip have in common? Probably nothing. And in what way do I feel “amazing”? I have exceptional tactile abilities? I feel that I can leap tall buildings? I am in love? I just got over my cold?
Sometimes we use modifiers to boost our adjectives. These are often just padding, dull our writing, and should be used sparingly: very, quite, rather.
We should not use them unless we have a very good, quite awesome, and rather indispensable reason to do so. If we feel that we must add “very” before an adjective, perhaps instead we should step up to a better adjective. “A very cold wind” might better be an “icy wind,” “a biting wind,” “an insulting wind,” “a stinging wind,” “a tear-freezing wind,” or “a hellish gale.”
Such adjectives as beautiful, wonderful, lovely, delightful, awful, terrible express the opinion of the observer. They are value judgments that tell me little about the thing observed. They may give me a clue about the speaker and, used in dialogue, can be revealing. But if in our narration we want to paint a picture for our reader, we should probably stay away from them. “This is a beautiful tree.” What do I now know about the tree? A venerable sycamore in a city park? A chopped-down evergreen sparkling with tinsel? A twisted bonsai?
A beautiful woman is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder and illuminates little about a character unless you tell me what makes her beautiful. It’s not her perfect nose. (All sizes and shapes of noses can be perfect for the faces they adorn, from Barbara Streisand to Nefertiti.)
My dog has beautiful eyes. Do you know what they look like? No. (They are dark and almond shaped, like those of a seductive cat in a Disney cartoon or of an oriental goddess or like Nefertiti. Getting the picture? [My dog really does have almond-shaped eyes like Nefertiti. His nose is different, though.])
Beauty is one of those almost indescribable qualities, and maybe that’s why details are so often ungraspable. They may be irrelevant. Even Virginia Woolf couldn’t capture it with mere descriptors, as she demonstrates in trying to describe Fanny’s beauty in this passage from Jacob’s Room:
“Thus if you talk of a beautiful woman you mean only something flying fast which for a second uses the eyes, lips, or cheeks of Fanny Elmer, for example, to glow through.”
Often, we hope to evoke a feeling in the reader with a kind of shorthand where we don’t want or need details. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne describes women gathered to wait for Hester’s first appearance after sentencing:
“‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead?’ cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges.”
Hawthorne has given us enough description previously so that we can fill in our own version of ugly here. Again, he describes the “sad-colored garments of a throng of bearded men.” That’s all we need to know at that moment of the gathered crowd to set the stage for the entrance of the main character.
Hawthorne frequently uses such descriptors as picturesque, sad, ugly—without telling us what makes them so. He can do so because in other places his descriptions of people and place are so thorough, he can choose when to linger over details and when to simply tweak the reader’s imagination.
Here are examples of evocative, rather than purely descriptive, adjectives:
From Moby Dick: “When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves….”
From Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf: “Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.”
Woolf announces to one of her correspondents that she is going to practice writing description without using any adjectives. (This seems like good practice for anyone, and while we might not achieve a full descriptive paragraph without an adjective, the exercise might boost us out of our adjectival box, so we could write using fewer and better ones.)
Hawthorne undertakes to describe Hester’s clothing without using a single adjective to actually describe the dress itself:
“Her attire, which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her peculiarity.”
By itself, this description does not paint an exact picture, but in context, it is a brilliant thread in the rich tapestry of the novel as a whole.