Quotes on modifiers

What writers and others say

“I once watched my future wife (then colleague) disembowel a news release, striking through all the adverbs, adjectives and nonsense. When she was done, it was five sentences and a boilerplate. It was love at first write.”
— Nancy L. Banks, senior manager of Strategic Planning for Toyota Motor North America, Inc.

“There is a tendency to slather everything with adjectives and adverbs, when what you really want to do is strip it.”
— William Blundell, author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing

“The thing about food writing is that there are only about fifteen adjectives you can use—’delicious,’ ‘delectable,’ ‘unctuous’…”
— Tom Parker Bowles, food writer at Tatler and author of The Year of Eating Dangerously

“Never send an adjective on a noun’s errand.”
— John Ciardi, English dramatist, actor, author

“Avoid verb qualifiers that attach themselves to standard prose like barnacles to the hull of a ship. Scrape away these crustaceans during revision, and the ship of your prose will glide toward meaning with speed and grace.”
— Roy Peter Clark, editorial guru for The Poynter Institute, in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer

“Frequently, we use adjectives to paper over a shortage of facts. … A ‘troubling number’ — how many is that? And who was troubled by it? Better to let the facts speak. Did half the workers fail to show? Ten percent? One percent? Give the reader the info and let her judge whether it’s troubling or not.”
— Mark Duvoisin, reporter and editor for the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call

“I tend not to like overly luxurious, lip-smacking sort of writing. I like the taste of writing to be as sharp as the taste of food. When I eat, I tend not to like things that are disguised with a lot of sauces.”
— Joe Fiorito, author of Comfort Me With Apples

“You could toss all your adjectives in the trash and still be able to say something, but without verbs you have no writing, only collections of words. Verbs make things happen.”
— David Fryxell, author of How to Write Fast (While Writing Well)

“Knee-jerk modifiers … automatically attach themselves to some nouns. Who needs to hear about one more ‘spirited chase’? Or another ‘troubled teenager’? And haven’t we all had enough of ‘angry mobs,’ ‘nasty cuts,’ and ‘trying times’?”
— Jack Hart, Managing editor of the Oregonian, in A Writer’s Coach

“The first and most important thing of all is to strip language clean, to lay it bare down to the bone.”
— Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer and journalist

“When he’d read it all, Fred was richer by adjectives, but not by nouns. The whole review, brief as it was, had been written as if it were intended to serve as the base-line accompaniment to a tune no one bothered to supply: opinion without information.”
— Nicholas Kilmer in Lazarus, Arise

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
— Stephen King, prolific novelist, in On Writing

“As a writer George placed his trust in verbs and nouns, careful not to let the narrative go astray in the flowerbeds of showy adjectives. For the same reason he was equally wary as an editor, careful not to mess up somebody else’s prose with decorative improvements.”
— Lewis H. Lapham, Harper’s editor, on author and editor George Plimpton

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”
— Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird

“A line of dialogue is not clear enough if you need to explain how it’s said.”
— Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty

“If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I’d have it shot. Immediately.”
— Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty

“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs.'”
— Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty

“Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well.”
— David Mitchell, novelist, in The Bone Clocks

“Are adjectives and adverbs necessary? Of course I use both, but never without feeling a tiny sense of failure that I have not found the right noun or verb.”
— Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work

“I realized that adjectives and adverbs, although necessary, could weaken — ‘very angry’ was always less than ‘angry.'”
— Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work

“Using fluffy language doesn’t just hurt you while users are on your site. It can prevent users from finding your site in the first place because sites that use plain language will outrank you in the search engine results page listings.”
— Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger, co-authors of Prioritizing Web Usability

“The more florid the descriptions, the more users tune them out and go elsewhere. Sadly, the web is so smothered in vaporous content and intangible verbiage that users simply skip over it. The more bad writing you push on your users, the more you train them to disregard your message. Useless content doesn’t just annoy people; it’s a leading cause of lost sales.”
Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger, co-authors of Prioritizing Web Usability

“Stop the BS and hype. I don’t want to hear that the XYZ company, ‘Leader in the field of fisbies’ has announced a revolutionary new computer … with no data, no insight, no competitive data, just BS, time-wasting words. Do you PR people really think we’re going to either be influenced by that or, worse yet, print it?”
— Jon Peddie, Jon Peddie Associates, interviewed by Softletter.com

“I am still studying verbs and the mystery of how they connect nouns. I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days.”
— Carl Sandburg, Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet

“God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed by and by.”
— Mark Twain, American writer and wit

Quotes on modifiers

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
— Mark Twain, in a letter to a 12-year-old boy.

“We’ve got to get out of death by hyphen.”
— Gail Walters, director of marketing, Inova

“Adjectives are cheap. Everyone is a ‘best selling’ author or a ‘sought after’ speaker or a ‘world class’ coach. Nouns are more expensive: How many BOOKS, how many SPEECHES, how many CLIENTS?”
— Alan Weiss, Principal, Summit Consulting Group

“The adjective hasn’t been born yet that can pull a noun out of a tight spot.”
— E.B. White, co-author of Elements of Style

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. … Avoid the use of qualifiers; rather, very, little, pretty; these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. … Do not explain too much (he said consolingly, or she replied grudgingly); let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”
— E.B. White, co-author of Elements of Style

“Adjectives like ‘cute’ take up space, take up time and don’t give anything in return. Not unlike some men I’ve dated.”
— Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications Inc.

“Have you seen any resort built in the last twenty years that isn’t world class? Those words have been drained of all their blood.”
— Steve Wynn, American casino and resort developer, in “What I’ve Learned,” Esquire, January 2008
  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our in-house clear-writing workshop — you’ll learn how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.

Free writing tips
  • Get tips, tricks & trends for Catching Your Readers
  • Learn to write better, easier & faster
  • Discover proven-in-the-lab writing techniques