I don't know how many times I've read advice claiming you need to slash adjectives and adverbs from your copy. The writer will share a few examples of converting boring descriptive sentences into exciting action sentences.

"He was super-duper tall -- even taller than a three-story building," becomes, "he lumbered through the town, stepping over houses and squashing cars."

It's related to the classic "show, don't tell" advice. The action sentence above paints a much clearer picture than the descriptive sentence.

And yes. It's a big improvement. But does that mean adjectives are bad? (Oops, let me spruce that question up with a verb, "does that mean it's time to detonate all adjectives?" :-)

Of course not. The problem is that weak writers tend to choose boring adjectives and overuse them. But guess what? Verbs can be used poorly too. And used well, adjectives do have power.

Over at Neuromarketing, Roger Dooley wrote:

Properly used adjectives actually DO increase revenue:

Other research by Dr. [Brian] Wansink found that descriptive menu labels increased sales by as much as 27 percent. He has divided descriptions into four categories: geographic labels like "Southwestern Tex-Mex salad," nostalgia labels like "ye old potato bread," sensory labels like "buttery plump pasta" and brand names. Finding that brand names help sales, chains are increasingly using what is known as co-branding on their menus, like the Jack Daniel's sauce at T.G.I. Friday's and the Minute Maid orange juice on the Huddle House menu, Dr. Wansink said.

The key is to choose adjectives that are loaded with deep meaning.

The message of "Southwestern Tex-Mex" isn't about which compass direction to look if you're really interested in knowing where the salad came from (heck, it may have been packaged in New York City). The purpose of the label is to evoke the whole experience of the regional cuisine.

Reader Comment:
Tom McSherry said:
Definitely agree with you here. It's too simple to completely ban adjectives from your writing - in fact it adds a limitation that's unnecessary. Adjectives can be a very powerful part of good copy when used in the right way.
(join the conversation below)

The point of "buttery plump" isn't to inform the customer that it's got dairy spread on it and is big, it's to evoke a sensory response.

Brand names are used to evoke customers' prior experiences with or expectations of the brand.

Boring adjectives are adjectives that are too far abstracted from specific experiences to evoke a deeper response. "He landed a hard blow to my jaw" is boring...relatively. "He landed a bone-crushing blow to my jaw" is evocative. The first sentence might leave a bruise. The second causes a dislocation, or worse.

"The faster cure" is boring. "The 10-second cure" is evocative.

The advice to nuke adjectives usually says to replace them with action verbs. And that's great advice. If you aren't using action verbs, your copy is likely to be flat.

But it's not just a matter of replacing adjectives with verbs. You've got to use action verbs, or you won't see much (if any) improvement.

You could just as well advise people to replace boring verbs with evocative adjectives. And you can often get the same boost by replacing dull adjectives with more evocative ones.