Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Avoiding Synonyms in Adjective Pairs

Language has a natural flow and rhythm that can be difficult to understand and master. Even when we don’t realize it, this rhythm influences how we construct sentences and what words we choose. For instance, there have been many times where I used two adjectives instead of one simply because the sentence felt better with two.

     Dima was exactly what she’d been looking for—a clever and entertaining performer

instead of

     Dima was exactly what she’d been looking for—an entertaining performer.

You’ve probably had similar experiences. It is very difficult to define why the rhythm of a sentence can be improved with an extra word or two, but it is a tangible and important element of sentence composition.

I’m not going to try to break down the mechanics of sentence rhythm today (if ever, for that matter—that’s a difficult subject!), but I do want to point out a problem that frequently arises when writers adjust sentences for better rhythm. It appears most often in cases like the example I gave above, when writers include an extra adjective in a sentence. Here’s some examples:

     Lucy was always happy and cheerful.
     He’s so quick and speedy.
     You need to be sweet and kind to the patients.
     Look, I’m too tired and sleepy to think this through right now, okay?

What is the point of including two adjectives if they both mean essentially the same thing? It’s redundant and repetitive; and if you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that we don’t like redundant repetition here.

This pops up in the work of almost every unpublished author I’ve ever edited. If you have two adjectives to describe one thing, make sure they’re not synonyms! Otherwise, there might as well be only one word. Don’t waste space saying something twice when you could be using that precious space to give your reader a deeper, more textured glimpse into the nature of this character, setting, or object.

Which do you think will be more vivid: a costume in crimson red and cardinal red, or a costume in red and blue?

Now, it’s possible to have two adjectives together that are very similar but still technically different:

     The building was dark and shadowed.
     His demeanor is just so serious and grim.
     We have to be smart and clever.
     I think she’s fun and entertaining. 

How similar is too similar? That’s a call you have to make yourself. Personally, I recommend playing it safe and keeping such adjective pairs as different as possible. But if you really feel that the distinction between “dark” and “shadowed” is important and that your audience needs to know that this object or person is both, then go for it. Give it to some readers and see if they understand the distinction (without you having to explain it). If they’re not getting it, then you should probably go for some words that are less similar. If they get it, then you’re golden.

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