Choose Your Adjectives Carefully

adjectivesMark Twain was a fount of wit and wisdom.* I recently encountered this astute maxim attributed to him.

A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

While the statement rings true, it turns out that Mark Twain is not the person who coined it.

That honor belongs to Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-71). The confusion is apparently due to the fact that Twain’s future bride, Olivia Langdon, began compiling a commonplace book while a teenager, in which she included this paraphrase of one of Tuckerman’s observations.

The actual quotation comes from an 1850 volume in which he wrote:

It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament. (The Optimist, “Conversation”)**

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of the excessive use of adjectives, as I have written about in the past.

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Despite Lewis’ warning, I have to confess that I love adjectives. When they are creatively chosen, I find them illuminating, provocative and welcome. In fact, the ideal adjective accomplishes Lewis’ goal of conveying an emotion, not simply describing it.

And, as we have been reminded today, adjectives have the additional benefit of giving us glimpses into the personality of the authors themselves. “It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament.”

Meeting a New Author

Researching this subject I encountered an interesting quote from a popular Chilean-American writer, Isabel Allende.

I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.

While I can understand her desire to live an epic life, and applaud the accompany image of living one’s life with “big adjectives,” I have to say I am a bit disappointed in her choice of adjective itself. “Big” adjectives? “Vast,” “immense,” “deep,” and “complex” are just a handful of the substitutes that might convey different aspects of the concept “big.”

Perhaps she originally penned this in Spanish, and chose just such a “bigger” word? But then again, I assume she would do all of her own translation work. So it could be she was striving for irony? Not having read her work, I cannot say with any confidence.

Still, if I do expose myself to a greater quantity of her “adjectives habitually used” . . . I have no doubt I can gain some insight into her literary temperament.


* If you are curious as to whether Twain was a “fount” or a “font,” check this out.

** You can find more of his wisdom by downloading a free copy of Selections from the Writings of Henry Theodore Tuckerman.

18 thoughts on “Choose Your Adjectives Carefully

  1. It’s a shame when adjectives lose their power because they are used habitually and frivolously and none appear to take take their place. Like the word “awesome” In its current colloquial usage, which has quite simply become almost meaningless.

    1. I definitely agree with the overuse of words and their subsequent “weakening” as being a bad thing. Using the example you offer, I wonder if the majority of people who use the word “awesome” would even be able to define “awe.”

      1. Good point …. And yet if we tried to describe its meaning using synonymous adjectives, we couldn’t quite get to the essence of it, could we, which leads me into the odd world of seeing words themselves as “things” that exist almost independently of that which they serve to describe. Reading Kant just now, and I believe he would say that words belong in the noumenal not the phenomenal world: God is of the former, we are of the latter, until of course He – as the Word – became flesh! How AWESOME is that?!! :)

      2. Being a lover of words, I’ve done some reading in the philosophers (from Plato on) about their nature.

        The problem is that my brain is ill-equipped to think philosophically. I fear it’s too anchored to terra firma. So I can’t always fathom their meaning, even when what I can comprehend makes sense.

        Nevertheless, I was created by the Word… and that Word made itself understandable, and touchable, in the Incarnation. Meditating on that, as you suggest, is sufficient truth for a lifetime.

      3. Alaina

        I must admit to over-using the word “awesome”, but I can also admit to being able to define “awe”. I also will say, that having read these comments, and thinking about the issue, I now realize that the current usage of “awesome” really doesn’t seem to have any real “awe” in it…so I now vow to find more truthful, and varied, adjectives to narrate my life with.

      4. “So I now vow to find more truthful, and varied, adjectives to narrate my life with.”

        Retaining, I am confident, the restored proper usage of “awe” when you experience it!

  2. Dorah is right. “Awesome” used to be a heavy hitter with real impact, now? Word destroyed (Please shoot it and put it out of its’ misery. I’m sure it’s disturbed and desperate by now.)
    People scorn adjectives, but for one who loves words and chooses by their sound, meaning, and purpose, adjectives are treasure.
    Having worked with many Spanish language authors, the word “big” is most likely simply dealing with a second language. Adjectives are pretty complex – and English language use isn’t always what a second language writer is expecting or taught – or thought of in the context of their first language. (And it’s really difficult to change their minds /suggest another English word is really what they need. Seriously. It’s a battle) Or she may so concerned about the sentence meaning/concept she simply chose without much consideration a little word that seemed to serve. (All of this is one thing that makes languages so interesting….how do we ever manage to communicate?) As you say, only by reading/learning more about her and her writings…
    Enjoyed the post! Thanks for the link.

    1. Thanks for the insight into the translation process and its direct influence on the end product. Having struggled through the years with my own study of Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew I aware of some of the complexities of capturing the precise nuance of a word within a particular context.

      And, having worked with fellow writers (and knowing myself) I am well aware of how challenging it can be to help others edit their work. We are often over-protective of the words we have bled onto the paper…

      1. I regretfully predict I will eventually use adverbs even more often than I do currently, based on the predictably continuously increasing trend of talking elaborately, probably.

    1. My proclivity for adjectives is indicative of the rarity of poetic bones in my body. I number them at a mere three: malleus, incus, and stapes. It would be six, if I was fully attuned to poetry, but alas, I must be content with one poetic ear and and one of the “tin” variety.

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