Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Basics: Too Many Modifiers

Last week, we talked about misplaced modifiers.

Okay.  Last week, I totally forgot to post The Basics. So two weeks ago we talked about misplaced modifiers.

Modifiers are a double-edged sword:  We need them.  And too many of them will weaken our writing.

For those of you who need more clarification on what, exactly, a modifier is:

Modifiers are words that BELONG TO other words.  They fall into several categories:

ARTICLES:  the, a, an  These are the only modifiers you can never do without.  (They fall under the umbrella of "adjective," but it makes more sense to list them separately.)

ADJECTIVES: They modify nouns and pronouns.

ADVERBS:  They modify verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

Adjectives and adverbs can present as single words, phrases, or clauses:

The red bird fell off the perch. (single-word adjective)
The bird on the end fell off the perch. (adjective phrase)
The bird, which seemed a bit drunk, fell off the perch. (adjective clause)

The man ate hastily. (single-word adverb)
The man ate with gusto. (adverb phrase)
The man ate while his wife danced the cha-cha. (adverb clause)

So, how can too many modifiers, which clearly add spice to our writing, be dangerous?

The long and short of it is this:

When it comes to ADVERBS, there is almost always a STRONG VERB that would better serve your sentence than a VERB+ADVERB combination.

To wit:

She ate hungrily. (weak)
She devoured. (strong)

He cried noisily. (weak)
He wailed. (strong)

Devin placed the box firmly on the table.  (weak)
Devin slammed the box on the table. (strong)

Also, I think it's a common failing (at least I find this in my own early drafts) to use adverb phrases when we really don't need anything at all:

Sheila noticed an empty place beside Treela, so she hurried over and sat down at the table. 

The prepositional phrase at the table isn't necessary because we already know she's sitting down at a table.  The context of the story (and most likely the sentence or two that would precede this one) would let us know that.

(I encourage you to check your own work for extraneous adverb phrases! I tend to delete a lot of these when I am editing.)

Adverbs of degree, such as very, quite, extremely, etc., are particularly to be avoided.  These adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs, and it's a better idea to use a stronger adjective or verb to get your idea across:

The princess was extremely pretty. (weak)
The princess was beautiful. (strong)

He laughed very obnoxiously. (weak)
He guffawed. (strong)

As for adjectives?  Of course we need to know when something is cold or frightening or blue or delicious or creepy or fascinating or dead.  But we need to choose our adjectives carefully, or we'll end up with prose that is six shades of purple:

Lorenda reached her long, slender fingers toward the ethereal, undulating, purple, silken strands that draped from the dark, rough-hewn, Romanesque archway.


I won't insult your intelligence by correcting the above.

She stroked his cheek with tentative, shaking fingers. (weak)
She stroked his cheek with tremulous fingers. (strong)

Oh, and a word about your friendly neighborhood thesaurus: DON'T USE IT UNLESS YOU ARE SERIOUSLY STUCK ON FINDING A PARTICULAR WORD.  It's way too tempting to replace a common, easily understood adjective or adverb with something that ends up sounding ridiculous.

A faint blush tinged her cheeks.


A faint polychromasia tinged her cheeks.

And there you have it.  Choose your words carefully.  A STRONG VERB over a verb+adverb combination whenever you can.  A STRONG ADJECTIVE over an adverb+adjective combination almost always.

Now dive into your manuscripts and see what you can kill.


  1. In my obsessive critiquing phase (AKA the past week), I agreed to crit a couple of MS's from adult authors who need to read this. As a teen who understands these basics, it's frustrating to be line editing every second. I want to make them read this, but I don't know how to show them it's not really talking down to them to send them to a "teen" blog. Sigh.

  2. Taryn, I find you both mature and respectful. You could always introduce me as the mistress of MSFV, and then say I've started a Basics series on this blog that writers of all ages are reading (which is true, actually). Nobody is ever "too old" for the basics. :)

  3. Good post! Can't wait to go find(and dump) all the unnecessary modifiers in my WIP... But that'll have to wait until I finish it. Thanks Authoress!! :)

  4. Excellent points. Thanks for the reminders. But, oye, it can be difficult.

  5. Authoress, I'm a teen. Been one for 35 years. :)

  6. @Suzanne: LOL!

    @Authoress: Thanks :)

  7. Thank you thank you thank you! This is better than any English class I took in college. Appreciate the advice, as will anyone who reads my book :) Thanks again!

  8. Super post. I'm going to use this as a teaching tool in my classroom as well as my own writing.

  9. thank you 2 much!ur gr8!