Are Your Adjectives Powerful?

by ProWritingAid Aug 02, 2016, 0 Comments

Are Your Adjectives Powerful?

At ProWritingAid, we’re trying to help you finesse your writing with usable examples so you can spend more time writing and less time editing.

This week, we’re going to focus on weak adjectives and why you should carefully consider when and how to use them.

What is an Adjective?

An adjective is a word that names an attribute of a noun. Some are strong and paint clear, specific pictures of the thing they are describing. Some are weak and vague and don’t tell us much. Let’s start with an example:

  • Tom is cold.

“Cold” is a weak adjective that doesn’t paint a vivid mental picture in your reader’s mind.

In my mind, I imagine Tom’s lips are blue and his teeth are chattering. He feels like an icicle has replaced all of the blood in his veins.

In your mind, however, maybe you think Tom had better just throw a jacket around his shoulders and he’ll be fine.

There is a lot of ambiguity with “cold” and your reader is left to guess what you mean. This ambiguity is why an author might be tempted to add a “very”–to give it that extra punch.

  • Tom is very cold.

But instead of adding a very, you should really be replacing your weak adjective with a stronger one.

  • Tom is freezing.

Below are some more examples to get a feel for the difference:

Weak: Happy + very = I’m very happy.
Strong: I’m ecstatic

Weak: Hot + very = It’s very hot out today.
Strong: It’s sweltering out today.

Weak: Sleepy + very = She looks very sleepy.
Strong: She looks exhausted.

Weak: Glad + very = He’ll be very glad to see you.
Strong: He’s be delighted to see you.

Weak: Funny + very = You’re very funny.

Strong: You’re hilarious.

Weak: Dirty + very = That dog is very dirty.
Strong: That dog is filthy.

Weak: Big + very = The elephant in the room is very big.
Strong: The elephant in the room is enormous.

But…sometimes weak adjectives are exactly what you want.

Adjectives are completely subjective so you need to decide which adjective conveys your best meaning. The third sentence below uses a weak adjective, but it works:

  • Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt great.

  • Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt good.

  • Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt pretty good.

Even though the meanings of “great”, “good, and “pretty good” are very similar, the subtle differences paint quite a different picture. The weaker adjectives help illustrate situations that are decidedly in the middle on the continuum between perfect and worst. In this case, “pretty good” means you’re ok but definitely not 100%.

Strong adjectives turn into weak ones when you add “ly”.

One last note, pay attention to strong adjectives that can be made weak by adding an “ly” on the end.

  • John put on a terrible play.

Here, terrible is a strong adjective. You’re pretty sure that this play was a disaster.

But if you use “terribly,” the meaning changes.

  • John’s play wasn’t terribly good.

Again, it’s subjective and depends solely on the meaning you want to impress. If John is your friend and you want to be kind about his play, the second sentence is a gentler way of delivering a bad verdict.

Make those adjectives work for it! Decide exactly what you want to say, and then choose a strong or a weak adjective to get your point across.

Love grammar? Check out these other posts from our Grammar Rules blog:


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