Using Adjectives Effectively in Academic and Scientific Writing
Some authors claim that adjectives are virtually unnecessary. Choosing the correct noun in any given situation is the key, they would argue, and with the right noun, who needs an accompanying adjective? Well, to be honest, every successful writer uses adjectives to some extent, and academics and scientists who write sophisticated scholarly prose often require adjectives. In many cases, for instance, there is no noun that precisely and thoroughly represents a concept or situation under discussion. In others, a noun requires a range of modifications to provide exact descriptions that effectively differentiate slight variations in study conditions, participants, findings and so on.
There is no doubt, then, that adjectives are an essential aspect of scholarly writing, yet there is also no doubt that adjectives are often overused by academic and scientific authors. Such overuse tends to be the product of a positive intention to be precise, but long strings of adjectives preceding nouns can be the awkward results of this impulse. Proofreading your writing with your eyes open to excessive use of such modifiers will catch most problematic instances, but it can be difficult to decide how to resolve the problem. In almost all cases, it is best to use as few adjectives as possible, and such a policy can lead to choosing more precise or expressive adjectives, which is always preferable. However, if several adjectives are absolutely necessary to express a concept or situation accurately, it may be wise to explain the concept or situation carefully when it is introduced and invent an abbreviation to represent it. Once defined, the abbreviation can be used throughout the document instead of the noun and all those adjectives, which may prove smoother reading for your audience.
When you decide that several adjectives are definitely required, be sure to punctuate them effectively and in a consistent manner. Commas can be used between two or more adjectives preceding a noun, but rules and conventions vary considerably. The Chicago Manual of Style (2003), for instance, explains that if the adjectives ‘could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by [the word] and, the adjectives are normally separated by commas,’ but ‘if the noun and the adjective immediately preceding it are conceived as a unit…, no comma should be used’ (p.250). Following this method, ‘faithful, sincere friend’ bears a comma, but ‘many young friends’ does not.
New Hart’s Rules (Ritter, 2005, Section 4.3.4), on the other hand, suggests an approach based on the type of adjective used, with adjectives such as ‘big,’ ‘tiny,’ ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ being gradable or qualitative adjectives, while adjectives such as ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘English’ and ‘treacherous’ are classifying adjectives. According to this system (Ritter, 2005, Section 4.3.4), ‘a comma is needed to separate two or more qualitative adjectives’ (a short, thick tree) but ‘no comma is needed to separate adjectives of different types’ (a big black cat) or to separate classifying adjectives that ‘relate to different classifying systems’ (annual environmental damage). Whichever system of punctuation is used, when an adjective is repeated before a noun, as in ‘many, many tourists visit the Tower of London,’ a comma should be inserted between the two instances.
Exceptions can be made to these rules, with technical writing, for example, often keeping commas to a bare minimum, and some authors using none at all between adjectives. If there are no specific guidelines to follow, it is often better to use fewer commas than more, much as it is better to use one or two adjectives perfect for the context rather than a long string of them.
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