Really, Really, Really Good Advice:
The Modifier Syndrome
by James Thayer
What’s wrong with this? “The muscled, sinewy wrestler quickly wiped
glistening sweat from his meaty and haggard face.”
It suffers from modifier syndrome. This is more vivid: “The
wrestler wiped sweat from his face.”
Adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs. We learned about
them in fourth grade, and hoped we would never have to think about
them again. But let’s think about them for a few moments. Avoiding
modifier syndrome is a key to vivid writing.
For many writers—even legendary writers--avoiding the overuse of
modifiers is difficult. Gordon Lish was Raymond Carver’s editor. A
new collection of his work—Raymond Carver:
Collected Short Stories—which contains pre-edited and
post-edited versions of some stories, shows that Lish constantly cut
away Carver’s adjectives and adverbs.
With modifiers, less is usually more. Here are four ways to avoid
the modifier syndrome.
lifted the black, shiny, Senegal wood. That’s three
modifiers of wood.
She flicked the switch for the white
overhead fluorescent light. Three modifiers of
light. He had hard piercing sapphire
eyes. Three modifiers.
Using no modifier is usually best. One is sometimes needed. More
than one, and the writer has begun to stack them like dominoes, and
the sentence grows weaker, not stronger.
The speeding locomotive rounded the corner is a strong
sentence. The smoky, rumbling, iron-gray,
twenty-three-ton speeding locomotive rounded the sharp and dangerous
corner is a weak sentence.
How do we know when a modifier is strengthening rather than
weakening our sentence? If the modifier is important to
understanding the image we are trying to convey, use it.
The skinny, furry cat has two
modifiers. That the cat is skinny might be important to the
story—maybe the cat has been neglected, a strong plot point--but
that the cat is furry isn’t important because all cats are furry.
Saying the cat is furry doesn’t add anything to the image. Leave it
An empty adverb or
adjective is one that doesn’t clarify anything. It’s a zero word,
added to pad the sentence. Quickly
and slowly are big culprits.
I quickly grabbed the knife. All
grabbing is quick because that’s what grabbing is.
Quickly doesn’t add anything to the
sentence. He slowly hobbled toward the
bike. All hobbling is slow, because that’s what hobbling
is. I slowly sat in the chair. As
opposed to what, launching oneself at the chair? If you perform a
global word search on your novel for
quickly and slowly, you’ll
find you can eliminate most of them.
and quietly are often padding, and
are redundant. He yelled loudly. She
Many other modifiers are often empty. The
surgeon carefully inserted the needle. So, without
carefully, the reader will think the
surgeon laughed crazily and then wildly stabbed the needle into the
patient? What does carefully add?
and large and
short are often just padding. The
small mouse: maybe if all our characters are mice, and we
need to distinguish Big Daddy Mouse from Baby Bobby Mouse, using
small as an adjective might be
helpful, but usually a reader doesn’t need to know that the mouse is
small. They’ve seen mice. They know they are small. Elephants are
large and snakes are long.
Look for modifiers that don’t add to the reader’s image. If the
word doesn’t clarify something important or add a vivid element to
the sentence—if it is empty--don’t use it.
Avoid qualifiers and intensifiers.
Here is a technique that will make our writing much leaner. E.B.
White called qualifiers and intensifiers “the leeches that infest
the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
He was talking about needless qualifiers, the petty modifiers:
rather, somewhat, generally, virtually,
pretty (as in pretty much),
slightly, a bit, little, sort of,
I was rather tired. She was slightly stooped. He was a bit
timid. Her mother was a rather madcap master of ceremonies. The
fishing was somewhat disappointing. I was a little embarrassed.
He was a bit hesitant. He was sort of hungry. I was kind of
angry. He was virtually lost.
Here are several intensifiers: very;
really, truly. Examples: I was
really tired. He was very cold. I was truly sorry.
Why do we use qualifiers and intensifiers? Often because we haven’t
thought of the right word for what we want, so we construct it out
of a weak modifier and a noun or verb. He
was somewhat baffled, instead of He
was puzzled. I was really cold instead of
I was freezing. The bread was a bit old
instead of The bread was stale.
A good way to show the emptiness of qualifiers and intensifiers is
to add several in a row. I was really,
really tired. Or: I was really,
really, really, really tired. These border on nonsense, of
course, but not much more so than the use of only one.
Qualifiers and intensifiers take the boldness out of writing. Why
not say Jones was angry instead of
Jones was somewhat angry? Why not
say Amanda was flirty instead of
Amanda was sort of flirty?
Qualifies and intensifiers make our writing tepid.
Characters shouldn’t be
described as handsome, gorgeous, beautiful,
ugly or with other modifiers that
summarize the quality of their features. These words are summaries
rather than descriptions. The handsome
German shepherd. The lovely girl. They offer the writer’s
impression of the character, rather than giving information to the
reader that allows the reader to draw an image. The same is true
for descriptions of settings: a beautiful
sunset. A picturesque valley. And action:
an exciting footrace.
Descriptions should be specific and vivid:
blue eyes, a doughy face, a moonlike face, a bump in his nose, swept
back hair, a lofty forehead, thin and bloodless lips, silk-fine
hair, he was so thin his ribs showed.
Paint the picture for the reader—draw the image in the reader’s mind
of your character or setting or action--rather than summarizing it
with one of these vague modifiers, and here’s the reason: the
reader won’t do the mental work of giving a face to a character who
is described as beautiful or a
valley that is described as breathtaking
or a fistfight that is described as
the author hasn’t done of the work of vividly describing a character
or a setting or the action, the reader won’t either.
Isabel was a beautiful woman with lovely
eyes doesn’t leave a lasting impression with the reader. But
try this: Isabel’s hair was the color of a
raven’s wing. Her lips were pouty and quick to smile. Her eyes
were pool-black, and set far apart. A notch was in her chin, and
her nose was long and Gallic. She moved like a ballerina.
Here, the reader learns she is beautiful by being informed of why
she is beautiful. The reader will remember Isabel’s beauty.
Sometimes adjectives and adverbs add a strong and essential element
to a sentence. But often—perhaps most often—they are really and
truly meaningless padding.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing