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The Power of Adjectives

Updated on February 13, 2013

Adjectives are the powerful building blocks of descriptive writing. They add meaning and depth to nouns, helping readers to more fully understand what’s in a writer’s mind. When writing an essay or article, imagine that your reader is blindfolded, wearing earmuffs and completely reliant upon you to describe everything in the piece, because that's pretty close to the actual situation. If you don't mention it and describe it in detail, your reader won't know about it.

Of the following two sentences, which gives a more precise image?

She wore a bikini.


She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie, yellow polka dot bikini.

Behold, the power of adjectives.

But, wait: think you've got the full picture? Let's see...

Bikini Break

Olay Regenerist Regenerating Face Lotion With Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50, 1.7 Fl Oz, Packaging May Vary
Olay Regenerist Regenerating Face Lotion With Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50, 1.7 Fl Oz, Packaging May Vary

Combats fine lines, wrinkles, dry skin, loss of firmness & elasticity, dull & uneven skin tone.


Here She Is!

Bathing beauty.  CCL E
Bathing beauty. CCL E | Source

Notice, no adjectives were offered to describe the model wearing this bikini. Never assume your reader will make the same mental connections as you!

What Are Adjectives?

Adjectives are words used specifically to modify nouns, which simply means they give nouns enhanced meaning by describing a look, smell, feel, taste or other property which sets the noun apart from other similar nouns.

Adjectives take a basic noun and flesh it out with descriptive meaning to give readers a richer understanding of the content. Adjectives answer the questions, “Which one?” or “What did it look like?” or “What kind was it?” Take, for example, the well-known pangram used for typing practice, reduced down to its basic components without adjectives:

The fox jumps over the dog.

Each reader may picture this scene quite differently. It could be a fluffy white Arctic fox jumping over a Doberman Pinscher or a sleek red fox jumping over a hot dog, for that matter. The data provided is so broad that interpretation is left to the wide imagination of each reader.

But by adding in some adjectives, the sentence takes on new life and can convey precisely what the writer intends:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

With the addition of three little adjectives, a character study has been introduced. It's not just a fox, but a brown fox, and a quick one, at that. Dogs are typically agitated and on alert with the approach of a fox, so how did this fox achieve the feat of jumping over the dog? It's due to the dog's sloth-like nature, revealed in one lone adjective: he is a lazy dog.

You must have me confused with some other fox. Im the lazy Arctic fox, and I dont jump for anyone.  CCL C
You must have me confused with some other fox. Im the lazy Arctic fox, and I dont jump for anyone. CCL C | Source
The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog
The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog

Fun and entertaining memory game that’s also great for beginning designers studying typography.

Arctic Fox: Very Cool! (Uncommon Animals)
Arctic Fox: Very Cool! (Uncommon Animals)

Beautiful book filled with photographs, fox facts, map and glossary. Perfect for young learners.

The Lazy Dog's Guide to Enlightenment
The Lazy Dog's Guide to Enlightenment

Charming and inspirational book celebrating the simple wisdom of man’s best friend.

Redmon Rene Bidaud Instructional DVD and Jump Rope Set
Redmon Rene Bidaud Instructional DVD and Jump Rope Set

Instructional DVD and jump rope set created by five-time World Jump Rope Champion, Rene Bibaud


How Are Adjectives Used?

Adjectives can be placed before or after a noun, depending on the sentence structure desired. For example:

That was a long, hot, humid night. (long, hot, humid)

That night was long, hot and humid. (long, hot, humid)

The tall, dark man was swarthy and mysterious. (tall, dark, swarthy, mysterious)

Adjectives are used to poetically liven up a description (her sparkling personality), clarify differences (the early bird, as opposed to the night owl), set a mood (the calm, bucolic, serene meadow) and otherwise enrich nouns. Skillful use of adjectives throughout a work will produce a well-rounded piece that more accurately shares the writer’s vision and makes the reading more enjoyable for audiences.

CCL D | Source
CCL C | Source

How Can Adjectives Help Improve Content?

Adjectives add deeper meaning by providing the reader a better picture to form in their mind's eye of the concept or idea discussed in the work. Blatant or subtle nuances of mood can be created with mere sprinklings of adjectives. Imagine the different pictures that can be painted through the use of adjectives. Start off with one, plain sentence:

The castle stood on the hill.

Now, choose your adjectives:

The gray castle stood on the hill.

The cold, gray castle stood on the lonely hill.


The strong castle stood on the hill.

The strong, regal castle stood on the sunny hill.

Very different pictures, indeed! Adjectives make the difference.

Writers' Tools

Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus
Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus

When you need more than the simple offerings of an online thesaurus, consult this thesaurus specifically geared for writers.

The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives: For the Extraordinarily Literate
The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives: For the Extraordinarily Literate

From adventitious to zaftig, Eugene Ehrlich has collected over 850 of the most interesting and engaging adjectives in the English language.

Typing Instructor Platinum 21
Typing Instructor Platinum 21

Go beyond The Quick Brown Fox and jump up your typing skills to higher levels.


Make Friends With the Thesaurus

Sometimes, a descriptive term is needed several times throughout a work, but using the same term repeatedly can feel uninspired and tiresome. Here's when the handy dandy thesaurus comes in to save the day.

Say there's a noun that could be described as big. The term big could be used over and over, but that wouldn't add any nuances of meaning. An online thesaurus gives 102 results for other words that communicate the concept of big, including ample, tremendous, vast, bulky and humongous. Each word adds more depth of meaning, as something could be big without being bulky, so the term bulky more completely defines the noun described.

Employing adjectives and consulting the thesaurus for inspiration can help writers add fresh, exciting, insightful, valuable and meaningful content to their works.

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    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      An interesting and amusing description of adjectives. Love the animal pics.

    • Miss Mellie profile image

      M.S. Ross 6 years ago

      writeronline, that could make a pretty useful idea bouncer, couldn't it? Take an old adage or popular phrase, swap out words and switch it up, and see what creative juices start flowing.

      That image of Ms. Bikinihippo helps me feel just a little bit better about myself at swimsuit time. "Hey, it could be worse..."

    • profile image

      writeronline 6 years ago

      Good golly Miss Mellie, you've done it again. Another groovy hub full of worthwhile info, leavened with a little intrigue and surprise, eg Ms Bikinihippo...hmm.

      Given your challenge to think laterally about "The fox jumps over the dog", I surprised myself a little, by somehow arriving at "The good looking babe stomps up and down all over the ugly chick." How bad is that?? :)

    • Miss Mellie profile image

      M.S. Ross 6 years ago

      Challenging, yes, and fun for philologists! (And just think of how one can improve on Scrabble game scores when learning new adjectives!)

    • profile image

      Bethany Culpepper 6 years ago

      I love this hub! Very fun. Finding the right adjective is always a challenge.

    • Miss Mellie profile image

      M.S. Ross 6 years ago

      I'll bet your granddaughter has had the benefit of people reading to her a great deal--am I right? Children who are read to, even after they themselves learn to read, seem to be more tuned in to language and descriptive phrases in general, as a natural consequence of hearing words and translating those words into images in their mind's eye.

      And yes, you're right: too much of a good thing can be just as damaging as too little! Thanks for your comments.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      Interesting: My granddaughter of six and a half was the only one of 60 children (between six and seven years) who was graded as a potential writer just because she used adjectives during an IQ test. The children were (one by one in privacy) shown an apple. The question was, "What is this?" While all the children said it was an apple, my granddaughter said 'it is a beautiful, red apple.' BTW, Beginner writers tend to use too much adjectives. It is so important to choose one, best description of the noun. Thanks for this informative article.

    • Miss Mellie profile image

      M.S. Ross 6 years ago

      Glad you found it useful. Even seasoned writers can benefit from reviewing the basics from time to time. Thanks for your kind words.

    • profile image

      marellen 6 years ago

      MM...this was very useful and full of great info. Thanks for the quick English lesson and I mean it. Voted Up and useful....