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So, this inappropriate adjective walks into an iron bar...

By Ian Ellard 26 April 2012


We all know about adverbs. We know that they are illegal, immoral, unkind to your reader. An ill-placed adverb takes the fun out of things - what if I want to read that line jovially? Or skippingly? Don't tell me it's supposed to be read stentorianly - if I got it wrong, it's your fault.

But what about adjectives? In this brilliant skit, Stewart Lee lays into a famous man for egregious adjective crimes.
Here's a checklist to make sure you're not guilty, too.

1. Is it obvious?

If the noun to which you are attaching your adjective carries some sense of that adjective in it, get rid of it.

'...when, literally out of nowhere, a large, majestic albatross swooped and pecked off her pearls.'

Albatrosses are all large. They're massive. Ask Coleridge. And albatrosses are, for the best part, majestic. Just look at them. The appearance of an albatross in your sentence will herald both largeness and majesty on its own, so don't labour the point.

2. Does it matter?

If the adjective does nothing to help, surprise or progress the reader, get rid of it.

'The Italian waiter delivered the large plate of brown meatballs to the flat table at the 250-seater restaurant on the now-sinking ship.'

One of these things is not like the other.

3. Is it tonally appropriate?

Remember your narrative voice. If you're using a first person or a looser third person narrator and the adjective doesn't sound like something they'd say, get rid of it.

'When I get older, and I can reach the biscuit tin like Mummy can, I'm going to steal a biscuit and I'm not going to tell and I'm going to eat and eat and eat till I'm an oleaginous, swilling little bear.'

A lot of this will come naturally, but it's always worth checking, especially if your characters are not as easily identifiable as the above example. Would your protagonist's mother really describe that tune as 'banging'?

And, of course, if this is all too much to remember, you can always paint, in foot-high letters on your workspace wall, Mark Twain's advice: 'As to the adjective, when in doubt strike it out.'

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