Adverbs and Adjectives Alarm Bells
Excessive adverbs and adjectives create redundancies, strain credibility, weaken your message by overkill, and get in the way of the reader’s own thinking.
Use different coloured highlighters to mark every:
- adverb (Ex: quickly, wrong, fast, only, very, quite, somewhat, more, less, clearly, obviously)
- adjective (Ex: precise, smaller, larger, cool, apparent, certain, few, many, most, possible, presumed, probable, several, some, supposed)
Have I merely stated the obvious?
- The crime was committed early at 3 a.m.
Will my reader think I am exaggerating?
- The provision in the lease was unbelievably complex.
Do my qualifying words just repeat what the noun or verb says?
- The question is really simple
Can I substitute a precise verb for a dull verb bolstered by an adverb?
- Original: The plaintiff spoke softly to answer the questions.
- Revised: The plaintiff whispered her answers.
Have I used unclear modifiers?
- Original: The accused was described as a large man wearing a black hat weighing 250 pounds.
- Revised: The accused was described as a large man weighing 250 pounds wearing a black hat.
And where you put the modifier can make all the difference. Karim did a clarity layer review and found a problematic sentence. He realized he had all the right words, but where he put the adverb muddied the meaning. Can you tell what Karim meant in this sentence: “The judge only will hear the evidence”?
There are a few possibilities:
- Only the judge will hear the evidence.
- The only judge will hear the evidence.
- The judge will only hear the evidence.
- The judge will hear only the evidence.
- The judge will hear the only evidence.
- The judge will hear the evidence only.
Where you put a modifier (an adverb, adjective, or modifying clause or phrase) makes all the difference to your reader’s understanding of your message.
Be sparing with your modifiers: you want to avoid modifier overload.
- The janitor only arrived in the late afternoon to clear the excessively icy steps and, therefore, clearly it was the inattentive building manager’s fault that the tenant slipped and severely injured herself.
- The janitor cleared three inches of ice from the concrete steps at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, January 3, two days after the tenant phoned the building manager to report the ice buildup and six hours after the tenant suffered a concussion when she slipped and hit her head.
Great writers use adverbs and adjectives to target the message more clearly.
The judge explicitly rejected the applicant’s unusual argument on standing.
This response is precisely the type anticipated in the legislation.
The court relied exclusivelyon the evidence presented by the mature child witness.
Listen to a student colleague’s commentary on sentences taken from legal memos, client advice letters, and court filings.
Once you've seen the techniques, use different coloured highlighters to mark every adverb and adjective in one of your documents. Revise any sentences that set off alarm bells.