Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Forget Adjectives, Think Attributes

Week of February 6—The Devil’s in the Details
Wednesday, February 9—Forget Adjectives, Think Attributes

Ok, let’s begin today with confessions.
1.  I am not a grammarian. I worked as an editor for years and teach creative writing to kids, but I approach grammar intuitively, not scientifically.
2.  Everything I say about writing and do in my writing is informed from teaching kids about writing day in and day out. (Ok, I accept the fact that you’re an adult! But just know that I have this teacher baggage I pack and carry wherever I go.)

Now, let’s talk about adjectives and attributes.

I’ve attended writing conferences and in-service trainings where adjectives have been described as evil, little monsters that run rampant with the intent of destroying writing. They crawl onto pages and worm their way through sentences creating havoc. Quite a picture, isn’t it?

Let me just say it loud and clear—adjectives are not evil. Most inanimate objects aren’t. From a teacher’s standpoint, however, adjectives often aren’t used effectively and consequently these adjectives weaken sentences. For instance:

It was a very nice day.
She was a big, old woman.
They bought a brand new car.

In each of these sentences, the adjectives aren’t contributing much of anything. The adjectives don’t help develop a mental image in the reader's mind and worse, the adjectives leave the meaning open for interpretation. Less than stellar examples of adjectives appear in books, newspapers, and magazines daily . . . not to mention student writing. Chances are there are some weak adjectives hanging out in your writing and mine, too.

I think that ineffective use of adjectives may be what has given them such a bad reputation. Before we can talk about how we might fix those pesky adjectives, let’s be sure we know what they are.

1. Adjectives modify or describe a noun.
Clarence is an old man.
2. Adjectives come before a noun.
3. Adjectives can modify themselves using intensifiers. Intensifiers indicate intensity (somewhat, completely, very).
            Clarence is a very old man.

In reaction to the use of weak adjectives, some writing teachers I know started using the term attributes when describing the kind of descriptions they wanted their students to use in their writing. Attributes are adjectives. Those of you who are true grammarians know there’s actually a category of adjectives called attribute adjectives. These adjectives are called attributes because they describe an attribute or characteristic of the noun being modified.

My teacher friends and I have come to know attributes as words and phrases that create a mental picture in the minds of readers. The picture book I always use to introduce attributes to my writing students is a non-fiction book entitled One Tiny Turtle: Read and Wonder by Nicola Davies and Jane Chapman. Just look at this gorgeous description and note the use of attribute adjectives.

Loggerhead wanders far and wide in search of food. In summer to cool seaweed jungles, where she finds juicy clams and shoals of shrimps. And in winter to turquoise lagoons, warm as a bath, where she can munch among corals. Loggerhead may travel thousands of miles, but she leaves no track or track for you to follow. Only good luck will catch you a glimpse of her.

In this passage, attribute adjectives show the temperature of the water (cool), the texture of the clams (juicy), the color of the lagoons (turquoise), and the kind of luck (good) that we need to glimpse a loggerhead. There is hope, evil adjectives can become beautiful details when we use carefully chosen words.

As you’re choosing attributes to use in your writing, think of ways to describe people, places, and things. These categories of attributes might be helpful as you write:

·        Color
·        Composition
·        Direction
·        Flavor
·        Function
·        Habitat
·        Location
·        Movement
·        Number
·        Size
·        Shape
·        Smell
·        State
·        Taste
·        Temperature
·        Texture
·        Weight

Here’s the ultimate challenge, hunt down those evil adjectives--the boring, mundane ones--who have infiltrated your manuscripts. Hunt them down and destroy them and then . . . then you can replace them with strong attributes that add to the details of your writing.

It’s Your Turn
1. Look for attributes in your writing. They’re there. But also look for weak adjectives that aren’t doing anything but taking up space. Give them the old heave ho!

No comments: