This and That Thursday: Adjective Sequence

I came across this fascinating article recently and wanted to share it here. The article talks about rules non-English speakers are taught when learning English, and how most native English speakers follow these rules automatically without even knowing they exist.

In particular, did you know that a series of adjectives has be in a specific order? I didn’t! But when you think about it, you would never put adjectives in the wrong order, because it wouldn’t sound right. For example:

  1. Her beautiful long blond hair.
  2. Her blond beautiful long hair.

Why does the second phrase sound wrong? I couldn’t have told you, other than “it just does.” Turns out, there is actually a correct order for a series of adjectives. It goes like this:

Opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose.

In the first example above, the adjectives are in order: opinion-size-color. When reversed, they don’t look right at all.

Try this yourself: next time you hear or say a series of adjectives, try rearranging them. I bet you’ll automatically know when they are in the wrong order.

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Modifier Monday: Use Sparingly

Hey! Happy Monday!

So, I had a feeling this would happen eventually but I’m kind of running out of things to say about modifiers. This will be my last Modifier Monday post. Check out my new Monday theme next week!

I’ve talked about how not to dangle, misplace or squint a modifier. I talked about how prepositional phrases can function as modifiers, and I talked about weak modifiers. For my final Modifier Monday post, I’m going to talk about overuse of modifiers.

There are a few reasons why writers should avoid overuse of modifiers. First, too many modifiers can clog up your writing and make it difficult to read. Second, a weak verb + adverb combination, or noun + adjective combination, can often be replaced with a verb or noun that is strong enough to stand on its own. And finally, to quote my favorite Strunk & White rule, omit needless words. You’ll often find when proofreading your work that a lot of your words can simply be deleted without harming the meaning or tone of your writing.

Look at the following examples:

  1. Too many modifiers slow the pace and cause confusion
    1. With modifiers: “The sleek, black horse, with long legs and bulging muscles, walked toward the humming electrical fence surrounding his enclosure, staring beyond it with his huge sad eyes as though he longed to jump over and run away into the dark, thick forest on the other side.”
    2. Worded more minimally: “The black racehorse approached the electrical fence around his enclosure and gazed longingly into the lush forest on the other side.”
  2. Weak noun/adjective or verb/adverb combination should usually be replaced with a single, stronger word:
    1. Weak: “I ran quickly across the field.”
    2. Stronger: “I sprinted across the field.”
    3. Weak: “The enormous house sat majestically atop the huge hill.”
    4. Stronger: “The mansion sat majestically atop the mountain.”
  3. Omit needless words: also see my post on weak modifiers. A lot of the time, you can simply remove a weak modifier since it doesn’t do much anyway. However, sometimes it’s a good idea to replace it with a stronger one.
    1. Weak: “I was very scared.”
    2. Stronger: “I was scared.” Or for greater impact, “I was terrified.”

This isn’t to say that modifiers are all bad. Sometimes a writer will use modifiers to intentionally slow the reader’s pace, either to lend a contemplative atmosphere or to jar the reader, or to lead up to something with suspense. But if you’re going to pull it off, your modifier use should be intentional and calculated – don’t just throw in flowery words in order to sound smart or meet a word count.

This wraps up my Modifier Monday series. Check back next week for a new Monday theme!