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I've come across this Mark Twain quote:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them -- then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Can "use modifiers rarely" be accepted as a rule in writing? What are other "rules of thumb" in using adjectives and adverbs?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 24 down vote accepted

The reason that Mark Twain is warning against adjectives (and adverbs) is because they are "lazy". When you say someone did something "stupidly", you're drawing the conclusion for the reader. You're telling the reader what he should be thinking, rather than showing the reader what's happening and letting him figure it out on his own.

It's much harder for an author to show the character doing the thing, and then the consequences, and doing it convincingly enough that it generates the same result: the reader figure out it was stupid. But when done properly, the effect is a thousand times better than if you had just told the reader outright. Instead of trying to remember for later, the reader knows now the conclusion he drew and won't forget it.

Occasionally a detail is minor enough that you don't want to waste the time showing. In that case, try to remove the detail completely. Only if you can't remove it do you then want to tell the reader by using an adjective or adverb.

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Frankly, I still have problems with this one, sometimes it's hard to convey those feelings in just the dialog or actions. –  Fox Cutter Nov 23 '10 at 18:37
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@FoxCutter: That's why you don't kill all of them, only most. –  SF. Dec 25 '13 at 5:49
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StrixVaria is right: too many adjectives are a sign that you are probably lazy – and less precise.

The standard example why killing adjectives/adverbs is worth considering:
"The man moved slowly."

What image popped up in your head, when you read this sentence?

Now we try again:
"The man sneaked."
"The man strolled."
"The man limped."

What images popped up now? Was one of them identical to the first one? All of these three sentences can be described lazily as "moved slowly". But the sentences have all different meanings. They are much more precise than the first one.

The idea of killing adjective-noun or adverb-verb combinations is finding an expression which produces a better image in the reader's head.

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I like the way you answered. +1 –  rem Nov 23 '10 at 21:43
    
+1 I like the answer. –  KandadaBoggu Apr 28 '11 at 2:30
    
Actually "the man moved slowly" does not evoke any image in my head at all. The problem with adjectives is that they are often meaningless. –  what Dec 28 '13 at 11:22
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