Saturday, 29 October 2011

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers - Part 2

Unlike modifiers, which modify words or phrases, an Intensifier is a term for a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. An intensifier is used exclusively to modify adverbs and adjectives and is placed before the word it is meant to modify. 

In simple terms, the intensifier emphasises adverbs and adjectives - it makes them more intense. The word is derived from Latin, meaning to “intend or stretch”.

In grammatical terms, the intensifier lends no weight to the meaning of a sentence other than to give it an additional emotional nuance to the word it is modifying, however, since they modify adverbs and adjectives, they should be treated in the same way adverbs adjectives – used little and sparingly wherever possible within your writing.

This is where learning to spot them will benefit your quality of writing. Intensifiers are attributive and serve only to fill space, so unless there is a valid reason to intensify the meaning and emotion of sentences, such as in a character's dialogue, it’s in every writer’s interest to know how to spot them and get rid of as many as possible.

The kinds of words that ‘intensify’ adjectives are words such as ‘really’, ‘completely’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘totally,’ etc.

It was a really good show.
It totally took me by surprise
This is absolutely none of my business
They are completely over the moon
She was dead sexy

If we were to remove the intensifiers, the sentences would be better, like this:

It was a good show.
It took me by surprise
This is none of my business
They are over the moon
She was sexy

Now you can see why you really should limit intensifiers wherever possible, because they merely make the narrative clunky and some sentences are totally surplus to requirements.

Not only that, but some intensifiers are so overused in modern day English, it would be like sprinkling your story with dreaded clich├ęs. ‘Totally’, ‘very’ and ‘absolutely’ are two of the most overused and misused words used as intensifiers. Avoid them.

Another important point to remember is that some words are now being used in place of others and so the actual meaning is incorrectly replaced. For instance, the word absolute means ‘complete, unconditional or perfect’, however it has been misused so often that it is now used to mean ‘yes.’ This is not the actual meaning of the word, so using the intensifier ‘absolutely’ degrades the meaning and intensity that you are trying to achieve and it is also grammatically incorrect.

Another one that I hate seeing in MSS is ‘real’, as in "real cute". Once again, its use on this occasion is not grammatically correct and when used other than in dialogue (where it is acceptable as part of a character’s nature), it degrades the quality of writing.

Of course, like everything in creative fiction, everything has its place and purpose, so sometimes the odd intensifier here or there isn’t a sin, but your writing should contain as few adverbs and adjectives as possible, and that also goes for the adverbs and adjectives that you’d intensified.

There are some considerations for intensifiers, too. Some intensifiers are known as adverbs of degree. These are adverbs which measure the intensity or degree of an action, an adjective or another adverb. In other words, the degree of intensity or strength is measured, for instance:

She sang really badly – this tells us how bad her voice was. 

He enjoyed the show tremendously – this tells us how much he enjoyed the show. He enjoyed it very much.

Now contrast the two sentences with other adverbs of degree:

She sang extremely badly - this tells us it wasn’t just bad, it was terrible. The degree of adverb is more intense.

He enjoyed the show greatly – the degree of adverb here isn’t as emotionally strong as tremendously, so as readers we understand the degree of intensity used.

This is how adverbs of degree work. The exceptions to this are that the words ‘moderately’, ‘slightly’, and ‘barely’ are all adverbs of degree, but they are not intensifiers.  

Once again, writers should avoid using degrees of adverbs because it makes the narrative sound as though it has been written by a ten year old.

Intensifier Examples


The overuse of intensifiers in fiction weakens the strength of the narrative, so use a few as possible. Also, remember that the grammatical meanings of some words have been misused as intensifiers, so make sure the meaning you want to convey is not only grammatically correct, but also correct within the narrative.

Next week: Qualifiers

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Most people won’t have heard about modifiers, intensifiers or qualifiers, but each one has a distinct meaning within writing and the use of each one affects the quality of writing in different ways.

In Part 1 we’ll look at Modifiers; while in Part 2, we we’ll look at Intensifiers and in Part 3 we’ll look at Qualifiers.

A modifier is self-explanatory; it modifies words or phrases and makes the meaning more specific within a sentence. If used carefully, well-placed modifiers will allow a writer to be a little more descriptive. Badly constructed modifiers, however, will make sentences ambiguous and unintentionally amusing and will also weaken sentence structures.

There two types of modifiers that writers need to understand - adjectives and adverbs.  Adjectives modify (or describe) nouns or pronouns, and adverbs modify (or describe) verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.

When constructing sentences, the general principle is that you should place modifiers as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies.

For instance, the word spotty is the modifier in the phrase ‘the spotty dog’.
The word quickly is the modifier in the phrase ‘he quickly arrived’.
The word slowly is the modifier in the phrase ‘she slowly sat down.’

‘A cat’ is a simple enough sentence, but modified it can become a ‘black cat’ or a ‘fat cat’ or a ‘mangy cat’ etc. These are examples of adjectives modifying a noun i.e. ‘cat’.

Adverbs can modify verbs, so when constructing a sentence like ‘John ran down the stairs,’ you can modify the verb to: ‘John ran quickly down the stairs.’

Depending on the meaning you want to convey, modifiers can be useful, but they are subject to inadvertent misuse. Look at the construction of these two sentences - they mean different things:

He ate only fruit.
He only ate fruit.

In the first sentence, ‘He ate only fruit’. It means that the character ate nothing but fruit - no meat or vegetables or anything else for that matter.

In the second sentence, ‘He only ate fruit’, means that the character ate just fruit. He didn’t do anything like prepare, cut or cook the fruit. He merely ate the fruit.

Although the two sentences are very similar, they express different meanings.

Using modifiers correctly is easy when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying.

Here's another example of two similar sentences with very different meanings:

She almost failed every exam.
She failed almost every exam.

The first sentence ‘She almost failed every exam’ means that despite her reservations, she managed to pass all her exams.

The second sentence ‘She failed almost every exam’ means that she passed only a few exams and failed the rest.

The placement of modifiers is critical if you want to express the correct meaning.

Dangling Modifiers

As with dangling participles, writers should also avoid using dangling modifiers wherever possible because they can cause ambiguity and they can also make the sentence weak. For example:

Leaning on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

The way the sentence is written, it appears that the dogs are balancing on the balcony and barking. This is because they are the only subject present in the sentence and therefore it causes ambiguity if this is not the actual meaning you wanted to portray.

To avoid the dangling participle, the sentence should be clearer:

As John leaned on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

Now the subject, John, makes the sentence much better by removing the participle phrase ‘leaning on the balcony’ at the beginning of the sentence.

Here are some more examples of dangling modifiers:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. Rubbing on the bottom, the stone produces a shine.

Rounding the corner, the moon glowed bright.

Rubbing stones on bottoms? And since when did the moon start taking a stroll around the corner? These unintended meanings can be amusing, but they are grammatically incorrect because the words ‘rubbing’ and ‘rounding’ dangle in the air without any meaning. This is a dangling participle.

They are better like this:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. The stone produces a shine when rubbed on the bottom of the sandpaper.

As she rounded the corner, she noticed the moon glowed bright.

Now both sentences make sense, nothing dangles in mid air. In the first sentence, the reader understands what rubbing the sandpaper will do. In the second sentence, the reader knows that the subject sees the moon as she moves around the corner. There is no ambiguity and the both subjects are clear within the sentences.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers happen when some words sometimes end up next to the wrong word and thus change the intended meaning. This causes yet more amusing ambiguity.

I saw the moon poking through the curtains.

‘Poking through the curtain’ is misplaced because the intended meaning of the narrator looking through the curtains and seeing the moon is changed by the placement of the modifier, which in turn makes it look as though the moon is poking the curtains.

The correct way is: ‘I looked through the curtains and saw the glow of the moon poking through.’

A famous example of this humorous effect comes from the 1930 film Animal Crackers, with Groucho Marx as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding:

‘One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know.’

Remember that the intended meaning can be misinterpreted if the sentence isn’t clearly written.

Let’s take a typical simple sentence like ‘Tracy picked up the knife’ and modify it.

Dependable Tracy Evans picked up the knife gently because she was very careful about sharp implements, but then she quickly dropped it, coughing with fear when she saw the blood on the blade...

Modifiers used within the sentence:

Adjective: Dependable
Adverb phrase: picked up the knife gently.
Adverb in adjective phrase: very careful.
Adverb: quickly
Participle phrase: coughing with fear

This is an extreme example showing most modifiers in one sentence, but it gives you an idea where they should be placed. Used carefully, modifiers help to bolster the narrative, but it’s wise to consider their careful construction to avoid amusing ambiguity and sentence weakness. Not only that, but gaining a little more understanding of them will help weed out the obvious incorrectly placed modifiers or dangling modifiers in your writing.  And the general rule still applies: although not totally unavoidable, where possible, cut down on the adverbs and adjectives and limit them within your narrative.

Next week: Part 2 - Intensifiers

Monday, 3 October 2011

How to Make Description Sparkle

Firstly, there’s description, then there’s description.

Description is one of those wonderful writing elements that you can bend and shape and mould and make it what you want it to be. It’s not fixed and it’s not governed by absolute rules. If a story were a canvas, the description is the colour; layers and layers of it to make the picture a whole.

So how do you go about transforming dull, boring description into something a little more lavish or evocative? It all comes down to that old adage: show, don’t tell. Show the reader, involve them, but don’t tell them.

The descriptive element of any narrative is there to assist the reader, who cannot see the world your characters live in unless you paint it for them. The reader, in effect, is without any sensory detail, unless you provide it. It allows the reader to see this descriptive world, not just read about it.

That descriptive detail is the difference between someone reading your work and enjoying it or not reading it at all.

Descriptive writing is incredibly important to every writer. Description should convey more to the reader than just a setting or a bit of action; it also conveys the hidden nuances, the emotions, the colourful embellishments or the subtle hints of things to come. Description is so much more.

Of course, creating sparkling description isn’t all about making sure every paragraph is jammed with descriptive passages, because it’s easy to overdo it. On the whole, a writer should instinctively know when to add those extra elements and when to leave it fairly simple.

Whether description comes alive or remains turgid, it all rests on the one factor that all writers should pay attention: choice of words, the way they fit into the scene, the way they sound, the sibilance they create and the overall effect you want to achieve with them. And of course, always make the description pertinent to the scene and the characters. Don’t just plonk a bit of description in here and there to pretty things up a bit – it doesn’t work. Make it count and make it mean something.

The words you choose and the way you construct the sentences are what really makes description sparkle.

Here’s an example of one of my flash pieces, published in 2010 in the 6 Sentences anthology, The Mysterious Dr Ramsey, with the original descriptive elements removed.

Sounds drifted in, like vibrations, where the universe came back into view and my eyes opened to life. 

I turned my head to the brightness and reflections shone with a muted glow, while dust filtered through sunbeams, the particles glittering as you approached.

Now compare it to the original excerpt, complete with description:

Sounds drifted in, like water-muffled vibrations, where the universe came back into view and grey shapes dissipated as my eyes opened to the majesty of life like a slow, unfolding flower. 

I turned my head to the brightness as honey layered clouds and Midas reflections shone with a muted glow, stark against a cobalt blue sky while dust filtered through angled sunbeams, the particles glittering like traces of tinsel and dancing as you approached.

The choice of words above makes the entire scene feel very different. The right amount of description coupled with the right selection of words make a big difference when trying to transport the reader to the fictional world you’ve created. 

Think about the scene you are writing – is it tense, atmospheric, romantic, action packed? The words you choose should reflect the feel of the scene you’re trying to create.

There are a few types of scenes which could always benefit attention where description is concerned:

Key scenes (action, emotion, atmosphere etc)

Usually, key scenes - action scenes, emotional scenes, tense scenes and so on – all demand that little extra where description is concerned, otherwise you’d end up with dull, flat, uninspiring rubbish that fails to keep the reader interested. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of these types of scenes and exploit them to create more emotion, heighten conflict or atmosphere etc.

Location Scenes

Location scenes also demand something extra. It’s no use your character being in a great location – be it vibrant city, the countryside or the beach - when the reader can’t feel or sense the place because of a lack of detail.

Introduction scenes

Scenes where you introduce your characters are always ripe for a little more descriptive flourishes because they give the reader something more than the clich├ęd ‘he was tall and lean’ type of description.

Introducing new characters sometimes needs elaboration rather than a boring two-line mention which often happens.

Where you have quiet scenes, scenes of conflict or dialogue scenes, there is always room for some descriptive flourishes to make the writing stand out.

It’s all in the detail

Details – the ones we sometimes overlook – can make the writing better. This is where observation plays an important part of the writing process. How many writers might ignore the patterns on a floor made by the sun through the windows? How many would ignore the sound of rustling leaves on trees? How many would overlook the myriad colours of a sunset?

Sometimes it’s the simple things that catch our attention. Description is no different. A good writer is very observant; everything provokes interest – the way a stream meanders through woodland, the way mist clings to the ground, the way fog vapour swirls etc. Things you wouldn’t think twice about are the enticing little brushstrokes within description that sing from the page. 

For instance, your character is walking through an airport. This is where many writers go for the ‘John walked through the arrivals hall and went outside to get a taxi…’

John walked along the narrow beams of light created by the sunlight that filtered through the huge shuttered windows and he headed for the exit to get a taxi, his mind still whirling from what happened in London…’

A little flourish with the sunlight, a reference to what John is feeling, all make the scene pertinent. Remember, it doesn’t have to be pages and pages of description. Just a few sentences or words can dazzle, or even a couple of paragraphs. 

Another thing to consider is the sibilance of words within scenes. If there is an action scene, then short, punchy staccato descriptions push the pace along, however if you have a love scene, then the description should reflect that – it will be slower, and words like sensual, sweet, seductive or sexy add sibilance to the feel of the scene.

Consider this:

Lena drew back, tears brimming, unable to speak.

There’s nothing wrong with this, however, the power of the emotion in the scene can be exploited.

Lena’s lips stung with his kiss and she drew back into the shadows, eyes brimming, veiled, unable to speak above her latent fear.

Again, it’s about choice of words and this second example brings the scene alive with what she is feeling within her surroundings, and her reaction to a kiss, and it’s all done with a few extra words. That’s how you make description sparkle.

  • What is it you want to express?
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Observation – it’s all in the detail. Readers love those little nuances.
  • Add layers of colour.
  • Sensory details – explore the five senses
  • Choose the right descriptive words for the scene – action scenes, love scenes, emotional scenes etc
  • Create sibilance and rhythm.

I’m away for a well-earned break, so the next article, Modifiers, Qualifiers and Intensifiers, will return on the 22nd October.