More is not always better: minimizing the histrionic overuse of adjectives

  Photo:  By Alysha - My melodramatic mother in her pink piggy slippers and slogan shirt. 

Photo:  By Alysha - My melodramatic mother in her pink piggy slippers and slogan shirt. 

"Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts."
- Chapter 7 of To Kill a Mo
ckingbird

Her right leg was catastrophically smashed, causing excruciating and unrelenting pain.  The limb felt like it was being stabbed a million times by a  sharp knife.  The sharp burning pain became absolutely unbearable to the point where she was forced to take vicodin.  She was reluctant to take this narcotic drug, but her overwhelming distress left her no better option.  Even so, when she finally managed to choke down the potentially addictive drug, it didn't help alleviate her suffering.  She was unable to get a restful, healing and nurturing sleep, because every time she turned over or made any movement, her severely injured and damaged leg would go into spasms of terrible pain that strongly radiated throughout her fatigued and shaking body.  Fortunately, no bones were broken. It took almost six weeks before her badly stretched and tortured ligaments recovered enough for her to begin running again.

We learned the power of adjectives starting in about the second grade.  These "describing words" add color to our communication .

In the legal profession, lawyers tend to be very good with language.  We enjoy flexing our grammatical skills.   Adjectives are high on the list of words that we like to use.  So we use a lot of them.

But in our quest to persuade with adjectives, we run the risk of appearing overly melodramatic.  The melody and rhythm of what we are saying, is drowned out by disharmony.  The audience has difficulty finding its way through our tune.  And eventually resorts to ignoring the babble.   This process in turn subverts our perceived credibility with both judges and juries.

Here are some thoughts on using adjectives:

  • Less is (usually) more
  • Save strong ones for moments where emphasis is actually needed
  • Don't use the same one repeatedly within a short time span
  • Don't rely upon them to explain what is going on
  • Avoid stringing them together
  • Don't assume they are helping to make your point
  • Stop thinking that you can manipulate the audience's emotions through the use of adjectives
  • Practice self restraint in employing them
  • Try to hear (from others' perspectives) what you are saying
  • Try to read (from others' perspectives) what you are writing
  • Respect the delicacy involved in using them
  • Make sure they have the right tenor