Modifiers: Modify your A$$ Out of Here

April 13, 2015

For the writer, words are our friends.  They tell us how they're feeling.  They aren't afraid of expressing themselves--unlike our spouses.  In fact, we can get practically polyamorous with them, believing that we need as many of them in our lives as we can get.  ("Big Love," anyone?)

For the editor, all that is a gigantic, "Yeah, no."  Of course, words are a cool way to express ourselves, but you gotta know when enough is enough.  Despite the beliefs of rabid Lady Gaga fans, there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Cut it out, writers, or we will.

One of the core areas in which I notice bloat in language and writing is the overuse of modifiers.

"What's with all these big words?" you query.  (Ooops!  Another one.)

It's pretty simple, really.  A modifier is a word that gives a description of another word.  In boring English class--you know, the class you slept your way through--you may have heard them called "adjectives" or "adverbs," or some crap. As an editor, we refer to them as &*$%#<=+#, as in the language we use when we come across them misused so frequently.

Here are some examples of modifiers:


Now let's see how we encounter their being abused to holy hell in nature:

That so-called good book I was forced to read by my totally horrible teacher was pretty bad and really asinine. It was so utterly stupid, man!

Please never write this way. Not only does it sound juvenile, but the amount of unnecessary modifiers in here borders on the obscene. You don't get awarded anything for putting the most number of useless and irritating modifiers in one sentence.  When you look at these risible sentences, what you see are words that don't add any value to the words being modified.

For example, we get that your teacher sucked. Yeah, she was horrible. But totally horrible? Really? As opposed to what? Being partially horrible? Obviously, what we're trying to communicate is the ultimate terrible teacher, and that's cool, but you don't need two words to express that sentiment, not when one will suffice. Let's just call her horrible. Or if you want to be over the top, we'll call her Beyoncé.

The same goes for most modifiers in the sentence; they're just not needed. Kick them to the curb so you have a lean sentence and one that communicates a straightforward message.

I should mention that modifiers, also referred to as intensifiers, do have a place at times. For example, in creative writing, they're certainly appropriate to paint vivid pictures for your readers. When hatin' on modifiers, I'm referring to business writing, though. After all, it's awesome to say "the ominously dark skies" in a short story.  It's not so awesome to say "you're super fired" when canning the guy with seven kids, a wife, and a mortgage.  Workplace violence much?

So pay attention to your next writing assignment, whether it's for work or pleasure. Scrutinize that adjective before it makes to the editor's desk. Interrogate that adverb as if it were in Guantanamo Bay. Your message and audience deserve it.  And so does the editor who has to read your stuff.

Get down and dirty with Purdue's lesson on unnecessary modifiers.  Try not to fall asleep, please.

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