How to Use Adjectives Effectively

What Is an Adjective?
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. Often called describing words, adjectives provide information like how many, which size, or what color. Proper nouns can also be used as adjectives, as in the phrases Broadway play and Canadian dollar. These are called, appropriately, proper adjectives. Additionally, articles (a, an, and the) are also adjectives.

Proper Use of Adjectives
Although adjectives typically precede the noun or pronoun that they modify, in some cases they should instead follow the noun or pronoun. Most commonly, the latter occurs when the adjective functions as an appositive (the tree, old and gnarly, stood alone), modifies a pronoun usually followed by an adjective (anything sweet or nothing important), or follows a linking verb (the child is happy or this soup tastes delicious).

Things can get tricky when multiple adjectives modify the same noun or pronoun. In this situation, it is important to determine whether the describing words are coordinate adjectives:

  • Coordinate adjectives: modify the same noun (small, thorny bush)
  • Not coordinate adjectives: one modifies the noun, and another modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun (tall oak tree)

Notice that coordinate adjectives should be separated by a comma or and. In fact, if you’re not sure whether two or more adjectives are coordinate, try placing and between them—if it fits, they are coordinate adjectives. Using the examples above, small and thorny bush makes sense, but tall and oak tree does not; thus, the first phrase requires a comma (or and).

When a phrase functions as a unit to modify a noun, this is called a phrasal adjective or compound modifier. Similar to commas with coordinate adjectives, here you need to know whether to hyphenate. A phrasal adjective preceding a noun should typically be hyphenated unless it begins with an -ly adverb (sharply worded rebuttal), but if it follows the noun, it should remain open. However, the intended meaning needs to be taken into consideration as well. A small animal hospital, for instance, is not necessarily the same thing as a small-animal hospital: the first is an animal hospital that is small, while the second is an animal hospital that caters to small animals.

Sparingly and Carefully
While adjectives often enhance writing, too many can make the text feel clunky. A good rule of thumb is to use them sparingly and choose them carefully. Watch especially for adjectives that are redundant, vague, or flowery, as in the following examples:

  • small speck
    (a speck is, by definition, small)
  • happy, laughing baby
    (if the baby is laughing, it is probably happy)
  • tall building
    (use skyscraper or __-story building, or have a character nearly fall over backward trying to see the top) 
  • a bright, shimmering, rosy sunrise over the sparkling, undulating water
    (try something more like the shimmering waves reflected the rosy sunrise)

That said, don’t be afraid to use adjectives! They often lend clarity to writing and can help paint a vivid picture for readers. You want dressing on your salad; you just don’t want to drown the veggies.