The Power Of Description: Part Three (Descriptive Verbs and Nouns)

>> Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You thought I was going to tell you what the problems were with adjectives and adverbs - well, I will, but not today, or at least, not entirely.

One reason why how-to books and experts suggest trimming down the adjectives and adverbs is because it can make you lazy and also because, with the right noun or verb, you give a wealth of detail. I can describe someone as rigid and brave and wearing a uniform and armed. Or I can say, a soldier, a martinet, a regimental, a GI, a drill sergeant.

By being specific with nouns, I can instantly convey a wealth of information. I don't have to explain the garb of a nun nor mention she's unlikely to be wearing make-up or guzzling scotch. I don't have to mention that babies are drooling or somewhat bald or short or desperately cute and largely helpless. All that comes with the word "baby". An atl-atl is a weapon (though most readers would probably appreciate a description), but a sword tells a reader more than a blade and a rapier or broadsword says more than a sword.

Verbs are one of the best ways to bring a scene to life. The right verb can add subtlety to movement, or add meaning to a gesture.

Let me show you what I mean:

The man walked across the room and laughed before he taking her hand.
The man minced across the room and tittered before clasping her hand.
The man strode across the room and guffawed before gripping her hand.

Same action, but the reader knows a great deal more about the type of person, the setting, the time frame. Better nouns would also help, but I could still surmise the second example is a supercilious official or a drag queen while the third could readily be a cowboy or a lumberjack.

Either could also be ordinary men in a situation made clearer because the verbs have defined how they are acting with increased precision.

But, there's a dark side to this. Using language that provides nuance and definition requires a much better understanding of vocabulary, making sure things work together in harmony to convey exactly the image desired. As words become more precise, there is a risk of conflict if words don't work together or are used outside their true meaning.

Take, for instance, this sentence:

The man strode across the room and tittered before clasping her hand.
The man minced across the room and guffawed before gripping her hand.

Now, the messages are mixed, contradictory. Instead of readily visualizing the action (and the kind of man described), the reader is left confused, perhaps wrenched from the story.

Precise language saves words and allows one to use a modicum of words when one would might otherwise require a bucketload. But, to use them effectively, to make the most of an extensive vocabulary, one must understand what the words mean so they enhance the context, not contradict it. More on that (and a few other things) next time.


  • The Mother

    Us scientists tend toward precise language in general. In my house, if my language is imprecise, my kids jump on me. I have trained them well.

    On the other hand, my language in writing often is too precise. I have to remind myself that I'm not writing a research paper. Or an autopsy report. Even though it feels like the latter when the rejections come in.

  • Stephanie Barr

    That is one of the funniest comments ever, The Mother, and almost painfully true (as many funny things are).

  • Jeff King

    I agree… if I knew exactly how I composed, I might have more to add. But my pros come to me from somewhere else, and are more complete and wondrous that I could ever have done on my own... thank god for that. If I consciously try and write it sucks and doesn’t have the pizzazz one would expect from a writer.

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations