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Modifiers I: Redundant Discriptives

Posted by CW64 on April 22, 2010

Q: What are modifiers?

A: Things that modify other things; descriptives.

As sarcastic as that sounds, the question answers itself. More specifically pertaining to writing, modifiers are those parts of speech, such as adjectives, adverbs and even other nouns, that clarify the meaning or description of a term or idea or to create imagery in a passage.

Simple enough.

If this is the case, why do so many writers abuse or misuse them? They either use the wrong ones, weak ones, stale ones, repeated ones, too many, too few, or even none at all when modifiers should be used.

One common mistake writers make when it comes to using modifiers is the unnecessary application of adjectives, such as the fifty-word sentences consisting of a long string of references to describe a term that doesn’t even need to be modified.

Consider this sentence:

The dirty, unkempt, stubble-faced, smelly hobo in the torn and tattered clothes ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant because he was dying of starvation

What is wrong with the above example?

Almost everything.

First, how many modifiers are necessary to clarify the description of the person in this sentence?

A: None.

Why? The answer is simple: the term being described (i.e. hobo) is by nature and definition dirty, unkempt, struggle-faced, smelly and wears torn and tattered clothes, so all of these chosen modifiers are unnecessary and even overkill. These words and their inapplicability are known as redundancies.

Q: What is a redundancy?

A: Specific to grammar: words, clauses, phrases, analogies, metaphors or images that provide unnecessary repetition.

What is meant by ‘unnecessary’ is that no viable purpose exists in the usage of said modifiers. If a purpose can be ascertained, grammatical or otherwise, then the modifiers are not redundant; if no purpose is apparent, then the modifiers have no applicability and should be deleted.

Believe me, I have seen the excess of unnecessary descriptives (i.e. redundancies), especially in erotica, and that has made me both cry in sadness and laugh in amusement.

Let us try to fix the above example:

The hobo ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant because he was dying of starvation

That’s better. Is there anything else that can be done to improve this sentence?

Why not remove the clause ‘because he was dying of starvation’? Is it needed? Not really. The passage says that the hobo is ravaging the garbage behind the restaurant,so the reference to his hunger is already clear. The verb ‘ravaged’ suggests, even infers, desperation, and the fact that he is ravaging for food scraps in the garbage behind a restaurant adds to the statement of his hunger. Therefore, the clause ‘because he was dying of starvation’ is redundant.

Let’s remove that clause and see what we have left?

The hobo ravaged through the garbage for food scraps out behind the restaurant.

One could argue that ‘behind the restaurant’ isn’t necessary either because the term ‘food scraps’ establishes the fact that the hobo is hungry. The first clause, however, is not redundant, as it adds an important piece of information to the puzzle: setting. Here we have a person performing an action, with a simple motivation, and a setting. The sentence is complete.

Of course, is the intended description of the sentence clear enough?

Well, when one considers that we can picture a hobo scrounging through a restaurant garbage bin for food, then, yes, the sentence is clear. The passage might not sound elegant, but it is understood, and that is the most important factor in any kind of writing.

Why, then, is there a need for all of those modifiers?

In my short story Born to Be Wild, I describe one scene featuring a colony of hippies gathering at a rally in 1968. Although not all hippies look the same, most share common features, like leather or fringe jackets, knee-high moccasins, weird-shaped glasses, beaded jewelry, dyed T-Shirts, blue jeans, headbands or.bandanas, long hair and beards. Because of this, the word ‘hippies’ is enough to create the necessary image in the reader’s mind. Consider also that using only the word ‘hippies’ allows the particular reader to conceive her/his own unique image, whereas the use of all the modifiers tends to restrict said reader’s imagination.

When it comes to using modifiers, the rule-of-thumb in writing goes like this: If the meaning or description of the passage is clear without the modifying element(s), remove said elements.

Be simple, not complicated. Being complicated only clouds expression and takes up the use of space, where simplicity not only maintains clarity but also keeps the story flowing unhindered.

Also notice the verb (i.e. ‘ravaged’) assists in creating the intended image and description. Therefore, even verbs can be used as modifiers and are among the most important to use in lieu of the action. In light of that, some modifiers must be included. Writers should always make sure that the modifiers used are the right ones and that the number of modifiers is minimal.

For those interested, please return to the previous post and work with the examples provided there. Remove and/or play around with the modifiers and see what happens.

Next: Painting Pictures – Elaborate Use of Modifiers . . . .


13 Responses to “Modifiers I: Redundant Discriptives”

  1. Been looking for some good comment suggestions for a while now. This is perfect!

  2. I love this article!! I have been reading this blog for quite sometime now, and this is my first comment. I would like to tell you that I enjoy reading this blog, and that I love thought provoking articles like this!

    • CW64 said

      Thank you, Braxton. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Please, feel free to post more often. Those with appreciation like yours will only enhance the posts further.

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  4. Good point that I had never thought of before.

  5. sex said

    Very interesting topic and useful post. It really help me. Thanks.

    • CW64 said

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. It shows me that I am indeed posting the right kind of articles.

      Stay tuned. More articles on modifier issues are to come . . .

  6. Almost all of whatever you state is supprisingly appropriate and that makes me ponder the reason why I had not looked at this with this light previously. This particular article truly did switch the light on for me as far as this particular subject goes. Nevertheless at this time there is actually 1 factor I am not really too comfy with so while I attempt to reconcile that with the core idea of the issue, permit me observe what the rest of the visitors have to point out.Nicely done.

    • CW64 said

      I am glad you enjoyed the article. I have actually found very few articles out there that discuss the different types of modifiers or the extent of their influence. I felt the need to remind writers that ANYTHING can serve as a modifier to a noun–even the noun itself. It’s all fascinating to me, which is one reason I never cease to explore the possibilities. I discover something new all the time. Language is wonderful that way.

      If you ever have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them, even if they tend to disagree with my points. I look forward to gaining further insight from others.

  7. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say excellent blog!

    • CW64 said

      Oops, sorry about that, Led. The posts here are moderated first. In any case, that has happened to me, too, a couple of times, so I can relate to the frustration.

      In any case, when you have the time, please feel free to leave your detailed thoughts.

  8. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • CW64 said

      Hi Boston,

      I am glad you have enjoyed the blog. I write on everything from simple grammar issues to creative writing to how my personal life and the experiences I have had tie in with my writing–it’s all me.

      Take care, and I look forward to hearing from you again. Thanks, too, for the feed.


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