How many of you feel guilty when you use an adjective? Most of us were taught in school that these were the second-class citizens of the language, and should be avoided.
Scorned by modern literary critics, disdained by many marketers as distracting fluff… is there anything good to be said about these scourges of speech?
Why yes, there is. For one thing, at least they’re not adverbs, which have offended the sensibilities of language curmudgeons for centuries. But more to the point, well-selected adjectives can enhance your content and drive sales. It seems that the reading public isn’t nearly as disciplined in its demands for action-oriented prose as the literati would have us believe.
Recent studies described in an article published on Neuromarketing.com show that plentiful adjectives increase the likelihood of your book being a best-seller. That’s hardly a surprise. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte – besides their enduring popularity, they share in common an adjective-rich writing style that’s not entirely based on the payment-by-the-word standards of certain periods. Modern writers from Malcolm Gladwell to Tom Robbins to Christopher Moore have garnered legions of fervent fans with their clever use of adjectives and other descriptive devices.
The popular literature that sells gazillions of copies every day is rife with these undervalued parts of speech. While Hemingway may be a ‘real’ writer, far more people actually enjoy the books written by less-lauded authors who added the colorful details audiences want to see. It makes perfect sense that this principle extends not only to modern books but to blog posts, professional articles and even advertising copy.
Why is this? The answer lies within – within our brains, that is. Our brains are primed by millennia of evolutionary wisdom to be highly attuned to the circumstances surrounding what we observe around us as ‘noun’ events (e.g. river, food, enemies) and ‘verb’ events (e.g. chase, ripen, smile). And let’s remember that before the advent of electronic media and easy access to hard copy, adjectives and adverbs served as the tools that illustrated the stories of our grandparents or favorite authors, adding the details that made them memorable.
“The dog bit Elvis” may be a complete sentence, but there are a lot of stories here. Was it an ugly, scary, vicious dog that had been a menace since birth or a beloved and loyal pet dog that, sadly, became traumatized enough to bite poor Elvis only under extreme circumstances? Even today, finding a rich, almost sensory experience in the written word is dependent upon the adjectives and adverbs that bring color to the more utilitarian parts of speech.
Adjectives, like their dastardly cousins the adverbs, exist purely for descriptive purposes. Adjectives don’t DO anything. That task is reserved for the much-admired verbs. Nor ARE they anything, as nouns so demonstrably can claim. Yet adjectives and adverbs do much to shape the reader’s experience and are desperately needed to create context for the mental picture formed by the verbs and nouns. Did the main character eat Grandma reluctantly or did he feel gleeful about the meal? Will your autobiography portray that awkward incident with the fruitcake as a thing that happened accidentally or will you admit was premeditated? Surely these differences are worth pointing out, even if doing so requires the use of adjectives or adverbs.
So go ahead and add some adjectives to your content and marketing messages. They may be sneered at in the hallowed halls of academia, but you’re trying to reach a broader audience. The descriptive words you use can help you make a powerful connection that lingers in the minds of your readers, and that’s worth a little mocking from the ivory tower crew.