July 8, 2012


I have harped on my students about strong verbs until I feel like a repetitive robot. I have practiced choosing the precise noun, and they roll their eyes when I look at their writing and ask, "What KIND....(?)" of bug, or desk, or dog or game.

And then there are adjectives. Not so harpy about those, but they do have their place. Tons of blogs about writing warn, "Not too many adjectives; no one will take you seriously" and other such platitudes. Well, I think kids need to learn that when you are short of verbs in a couple of paragraphs, you had better have some adjectives. I have done my own research in children's novels, with a sample of 16, and it is true that J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Rick Riordan, and others use this rough math equation.

Adjectives are the words that create the most hilarity in Mad Libs. They are what make-up about 1/4 of our English Language. They are what make poetry leap off the page. They are also what sports reporters use well.  Or overuse. 

"The flimsy pitch reeled through the suspenseful air."
"There were even hints of their lethargic 118-108 victory Sunday against an undermanned and injured Sacramento team."
"Wimbledon, the oldest of the Grand Slam events, remains beautifully suited to Federer's Swiss army knife of a skill set."

You decide.

Adjectives are what kids can struggle with because they know they want to say, "The Waterpark was awesome," but their teacher - or someone like me - has told them that "awesome" is a tired word. So they reach into their lexicon of words and can't quite find a synonym. 

Time for the Thesaurus? Maybe. Remember, that is not a tool to be used without adult supervision, because just dunking a fishing rod into there and retrieving the first word encountered results in sentences like this, from one of my students, an almost 6th grader:

The slides at the Waterpark were majestic and we had a jocular day.

The cost of trying to avoid awesome and fun.

Using the Visual Thesarus is a great strategy, and so much more motivating (!) yet still it needs a tag attached to it: "Do not use without Adult Supervision." Caveat: $19.95 a year.

So....what do the new Common CORE Standards say?

Here is a snippet from Grade 6-8:
Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.

My kid-friendly version of that is "Show Don't Tell" and "...use words that will make your readers see what is in your imaginative mind."
And, of course, I show them how their favorite authors use precise words. Wimpy Kid doesn't count as a model, though. Wimpy words. Imprecise. Okay, okay, not every page. I am such a curmudgeon about that series.

Ooops. I was supposed to be talking about Word Precision and Adjective Use.

I am sticking with my rough equation.
Paragraphs need either solid strong verbs, OR precise adjectives, but not both.

And precise nouns are always called for. 

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