PROFESSIONAL WRITERS – by which I mean those who make a living principally from writing – are often wary of adjectives (and adverbs). It’s their imprecision that’s the problem.
When somebody demands ‘better customer service’, for instance, we know roughly what they are talking about – but at a detail level the adjective ‘better’ is open to interpretation. What one person means by ‘better’ may not be what another person understands.
And while the writer knows what he meant to say, how can the reader be sure she has got the meaning intended without asking questions like, ‘better than what, precisely?’
Can you see how the adjective ‘better’ obscures the detail? It’s a lazy kind of shorthand for what is meant: it’s a road sign, not the destination.
Therapists and business consultants often have to ask their clients to unpack adjectives to get at their meaning. They are like locked suitcases: they’re there, they’re visible, but it isn’t easy to determine the contents. And so a client who says he is ‘having a bad time’ or is ‘feeling bad’, isn’t saying much until he answers a question like ‘bad, in what way?’
I remember the senior partner of a large commercial surveying practice once telling me that his firm was ‘the leading retail property practice’ in the country. But it wasn’t the biggest in terms of staff or turnover. When I asked him what he meant by ‘leading’, he became irritated, blustered for a while and then changed the subject. I guess the imprecision suited him.
Those who are not experienced in the craft of writing seem often to litter their work with adjectives. The American playwright, author and editor Jerome Irving Rodale, observed that the adjective “is the one part of speech first seized upon and worked to death by novices and inferior writers”.
Mark Twain was a little more direct. “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” he said. “No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
Stephen King – who wrote The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption – warned: “The road to hell is paved with adjectives.”
And Ernest Hemingway said he was taught to “distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people …”
The distrust showed in his writing. Consider the opening paragraph of The Old Man and The Sea, the novella cited when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.
The paucity of adjectives and adverbs is a hallmark of Hemingway’s style. (The Old Man and The Sea is both profound and poetic: if you can, listen to the actor Donald Sutherland’s reading of it.)
In business English, adjectives are to be treated with caution for several reasons. There is the imprecision, of course: how can you possibly get your message across to your team or to your customers with clarity if it is left open to interpretation by poorly thought-out descriptors like ‘better’?
But the tendency to scatter adjectives around like rice at a wedding can leave the amateur author looking ridiculous too.
In a recent email exchange somebody called for ‘poignant’ copy to promote a business. Poignant, of course, means ‘something that makes you feel a keen sense of sadness or regret’: it’s not really the kind of message any business should be sending to its customers.
In publishing, adjectives have often led directly to the libel courts. It may be creative to describe a businessman as ‘oily’ – as one former colleague did – but the word has negative connotations, which a good barrister can have a lot of fun with, and in this case did. They settled out of court.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting adjective-free writing. That would be idiotic, perhaps even impossible, and adjectives used sparingly and with care are extremely powerful. All I am suggesting is that an author – of a business report or a novel, it doesn’t matter which – should take time to think about what the words he or she uses might mean to the reader.
C.S. Lewis once told a young author not to tell the reader how she wanted them to feel. “… instead of telling us a thing was terrible, describe it so that we’ll feel terrified,” he said. “Don’t say it was delightful; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read your description. You see, all these words ‘horrifying’, ‘wonderful’, ‘hideous’, ‘exquisite’, are only like saying to your readers, ‘please, would you do my job for me?’”
The same applies to business writing. Look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself what the reader will make of it. Is it perfectly clear – or have you given them a few road signs pointing to a destination instead of taking them all the way there?
The Economist’s style guide starts with the observation that “Clarity in writing is always preceded by clarity of thought.” It is sound advice.
Or perhaps your intention really is to obfuscate and mislead. If so, I will leave you with this observation attributed to US State Department spokesman Robert McCloskey during a Vietnam War briefing:
“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
And that says it all.