Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Adjectives Are Coloring Words That Splash

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Not long ago as I was re-reading Harper Lee’s To King a Mockingbird, I noticed something that I had skipped over so many times in past readings: a grammatical lesson on the adjective, right from the narrator’s mouth.

Scout says: “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

What are adjectives?
Atticus Finch was correct in his advice. In general adjectives limit, narrow, describe, embellish, adorn, or simply encroach on nouns. But they don’t change them. Strip the nouns of all qualifications and there you have the plain, naked facts.

But it just happens that plain nouns are boring. To break the tedium of using boring language writers often embellish their text with an abundance of adjectives which often are unnecessary. Even master writers sin.

Take Bram Stoker in Dracula:
Dracula’s castle was dark, damp, and desolate.
Maybe one simply adjective could have done the job:
Dracula’s castle was stark.

Except that by attempting to be minimalist we could be destroying the full meaning of what the author was trying to convey; not to mention the rhetorical aspect: destroying the alliteration.

Adjectives are “coloring words” and add content to the sentence. Adjectives can be detected easily enough because they respond to the questions:

What kind of noun is it? If you go to “Best Buy” and tell the attendants at the counter: “I want to buy a computer,” I’m sure you will be asked: “What kind?” You’ll be prompted to give an adjective —laptop, a Mac, a PC— to narrow the noun ‘computer.’ Which noun is it? Or Which one? How many of that noun are there?

Another interesting fact of the English language is, that while most of us learned in school that adjectives modify the nouns and pronouns, few of us know that adjectives are also used to qualify verbs—linking verbs, that is.

What are linking verbs?
Linking verbs are verbs that express a state of being rather than an action: for example, to feel, to taste, to look, to remain, to become, and to turn.
My dog Pepino felt badly.
These peanuts taste sweetly.
We looked well as a team.
We remained calmly.
The accounts receivable turned badly and uncollectible.

Because we are conditioned to follow the well known rule that an adverb qualifies a verb we have the tendency to apply such rule in all cases, as we did above. But that is the wrong thing to do! Blindly following the rule will get us into trouble, as we will appreciate after we read the following section.

An adjective must follow a linking verb

My dog Pepino felt bad [not badly].
These peanuts taste sweet [not sweetly].
We looked good [not well] as a team.
We remained calm [not calmly].
The accounts receivable turned bad and uncollectible.

The writing techniques I employ in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's writing manual:

Sentence Openers

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