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Think about how you use multiple adjectives

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

When using multiple adjectives think about how they go together and if that's what you really want to say, and if that's the best way of saying it. Too often I've seen people use one adjective to modify another (which is OK), but in a way that really screws up what they're saying; in most cases a change of words would make it better.

What brought this on is today I was reading one of my older paperback action pocketbook novels by an Aussie author from the 1930s to 1960s - journalist and author with hundreds of books to his credit, and this was one of his later books. I read a phrase and my immediate thought was: what the heck did he think he was trying to say with that then realised it's likely the first draft had a single adjective and a modifying one was added later. It's clear he didn't go back and re-read the whole sentence, or he may have just had a brain fart that day. However, I've often seen the same two adjectives used the same way in stories at SOL.

What did he do wrong, you may ask: he said ... it was almost exactly three o'clock when ...

Almost exactly - both are adjectives and they mean almost the opposite of each other, but like this it makes the author look stupid. He should've said something like: ... it was just on three o'clock ... or something similar to imply the same few minutes to three o'clock.

When I thought about this I remember seeing other double adjective uses in stories at SOL that had me stopping to wonder WTF the author thought they were saying. You should use adjectives, and often using others as modifiers is good, but please think about what the final effect is.

typo edit

garymrssn

To me the phrase "Almost exactly" would mean "It wasn't exactly"
I suspect the author meant to convey the idea of a very small imprecision as to the correct time.
I agree there should be a number of more appropriate phrases.
I would explain the occurrence as a momentary excursion into "Authorial Lassitude".

Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

it was almost exactly three o'clock when


Almost three o'clock = Up to 15 minutes to 3.

Exactly three o'clock = 3:00:00

Almost exactly three o'clock is at least 2:59:30

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Dominions Son

Almost exactly three o'clock is at least 2:59:30


which is also covered by just on three o'clock and makes a lot more sense. Or just say three o'clock because a time difference of a minute or two rarely makes a difference in a story.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

Or just say three o'clock because a time difference of a minute or two rarely makes a difference in a story.


That is true.

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater

Actually, they're both adverbs.

Get rid of the adverbs by showing it and the problem goes away. You could have the person staring at the big hand on the clock approaching the twelve. But unless you're trying to create suspense, it's better to tell it.

I understand where you're coming from, but the combination of the two does provide more specificity. It's not right at 3 o'clock (exactly). It's not past 3 (almost). And to simply say "it's almost 3 o'clock" doesn't show just how close to 3 it is (very nearly).

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

And to simply say "it's almost 3 o'clock" doesn't show just how close to 3 it is (very nearly).


True, but how often do you actually need to be that precise in a fictional story?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
aubie56

Where I come from, "almost exactly" means exactly what it says! I can't see the problem. I probably have used the expression in one of my SOL stories, but I can't remember for sure. Come on, fiction has to have some lee way in the language, or it sounds like a text book.

Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Almost exactly - both are adjectives and they mean almost the opposite of each other, but like this it makes the author look stupid. He should've said something like: ... it was just on three o'clock ... or something similar to imply the same few minutes to three o'clock.

I've never heard the expression "just on". It must be an Ozzie phrase. "Almost exactly" means (to me) it's "almost three o'clock, but not quite there" (i.e. it's under a minute or two off).

It's an inexact phrase, and probably used because the author didn't want to imply that the character arrived at the exact instant he was due, since that's seen as being 'unrealistic'.

You're right, it's a stupid thing to add, as it adds nothing to the story, but it wouldn't annoy me as much as it does you, as I can see the point they're making. If it was me, I'd drop it in a heartbeat, but I wouldn't criticize someone else for using the expression.

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

I've never heard the expression "just on". It must be an Ozzie phrase. "Almost exactly" means (to me) it's "almost three o'clock, but not quite there" (i.e. it's under a minute or two off).


The author is an Aussie, and I've never seen him use that phrase before. But the point I was trying to make was: phrases like this sound and look silly (at best) and authors should look to avoid them by using something better. In the book I read the only reason for the time was to show it was at night and 3/4 of the way through the shift they were working, ten to fifteen minutes either way wouldn't have affected the story.

Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son

True, but how often do you actually need to be that precise in a fictional story?


It depends on the scene. It might be very important to the plot. Maybe something was going to happen or supposed to happen exactly at 3.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

It depends on the scene. It might be very important to the plot. Maybe something was going to happen or supposed to happen exactly at 3.

Like the old-time westerns, where someone's been told to get out of town by 'high noon'. How close it is to noon becomes essential.

But more than that, I suspect this odd turn of phrase is due more to electronic watches/cell phones, which tells everyone how many hundredth of a second it is before or after the hour! The information isn't vital to anyone, much less a plot point.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde


It depends on the scene. It might be very important to the plot. Maybe something was going to happen or supposed to happen exactly at 3.


Switch, if timing is that critical, then you should use exact figure like two minutes to three, or 02:58 hours etc. However, in the book I was reading the time was only needed to show it was late into the four hour shift that started at midnight.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

[I]f timing is that critical, then you should use exact figure like two minutes to three, or 02:58 hours etc. However, in the book I was reading the time was only needed to show it was late into the four hour shift that started at midnight.

How about we all agree the author got lazy and picked a bad adjective pair. I wouldn't classify it as 'invalid' or even 'contradictory', but it was clearly a bad choice as it wasn't necessary.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

it was clearly a bad choice as it wasn't necessary.


which is exactly what I was pointing out to people and they need to think about these things.

Bondi Beach

@Ernest Bywater

What brought this on is today I was reading one of my older paperback action pocketbook novels by an Aussie author from the 1930s to 1960s


Arthur Upfield, The Bone is Pointed, perhaps?

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Bondi Beach

No, J.E.MacDonnell The Dark of the Night a WW2 navy action story.

Replies:   Joe_Bondi_Beach
aubie56

I still think you guys are missing the point by complaining about something that we can all agree is not important. If something that trivial kicks you out of a story, you probably would not have finished it anyway.

I contend that a little "homeyness" in narration helps to keep a story interesting. Too much "precision" makes it read like a text book.

Joe_Bondi_Beach

@Ernest Bywater

Heh. The "30s to 60s" part made me think of Upfield, although I'm not sure he was still writing in the 60s, and it turns out (thanks to Google) Upfield did in fact use the phrase in The Bone is Pointed, although it was "almost exactly at twelve oclock [sic]."

sejintenej

@Crumbly Writer

I've never heard the expression "just on". It must be an Ozzie phrase. "Almost exactly" means (to me) it's "almost three o'clock, but not quite there" (i.e. it's under a minute or two off).

It is also used in Britain and to me has a hint of country as opposed to urban.
As for "almost exactly" that is used here as well I would guess it allows perhaps a minute or so either way but is clearly not right on the time.
Time could be of the essence in a detective story - as someone points out it may affect the plot.

Parthenogenesis

@Ernest Bywater

I vote for "authorial lassitude." It's lazy writing. Always go for the specific rather than the general. It lends verisimilitude to your writing and makes it much more solid.

It was five til three when ...

Replies:   tppm
sagacious

You ought to be thankful that it was English. When I was studying Russian I was floored by how many adjectives and adverbs were used, especially in news writing. It was nothing for them to have a paragraph with one noun and one verb. To make it worse, the English translation could take a full page.

tppm

@Parthenogenesis

I vote for "authorial lassitude." It's lazy writing. Always go for the specific rather than the general. It lends verisimilitude to your writing and makes it much more solid.

It was five til three when ...


No, it doesn't. People approximate when they're speaking. Unless you want your character sneered at (possibly behind their back, depending on how socially important they are in that group) for being excessively exact, have them say things like "quarter to five" (unstated +- 5 minutes). And I don't see anything wrong with "almost exactly" making it +- (say) 1 minute.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@tppm

I don't see anything wrong with "almost exactly" making it +- (say) 1 minute.


I don't know what the cultural thing is in other countries, but here in Australia if you say three o'clock people accept it can be up to two or three minutes either side, and you'd say exactly or dead on three o'clock if you want it within 30 seconds of that time. For a bit more leeway terms like almost or nearly do until you're far enough out to say things like a quarter to three etc.

In 60 years of life I've never heard anyone say almost exactly in real life, not even on the news or film. Which is part of the reason why it jumps out at me.

Replies:   ustourist
ustourist

@Ernest Bywater

Having been on the periphery of engineering for much of my life, I have heard the term "Almost an exact fit" used by mechanics quite often. (Meaning a hammer will make it fit!) Although the wording there is slightly different.

I would also differentiate between 'almost 3pm' which means before the hour, and 'almost exactly 3pm', which could mean just either side of the hour. It didn't strike me as being unusual at all as part of spoken UK English usage.

Grant

@Crumbly Writer

"Almost exactly" means (to me) it's "almost three o'clock, but not quite there"


"Almost 3 o'clock" means to me it's "almost 3 o'clock but not quite there".
Almost exactly is contradictory, I understand what they mean by it; but it still has me re-reading it to decode what they mean.

One that gets me every time and I see often on this site- "... I could have cared less". I take it the author is implying that the person making the statement doesn't care about what it is they're talking about.
But saying they "Could care less" implies it is of some importance. If they were to say "I couldn't have cared less" they're saying that whatever it is they are talking about is at the absolute bottom of their concerns.

Ernest Bywater

@Grant

"... I could have cared less"


except where I note the person spoke with heavy sarcasm, I usually have the word not in there.

Replies:   Grant
Switch Blayde

@Grant

"... I could have cared less"


There's a term for those kinds of phrases, but I can't think of it.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Grant

@Ernest Bywater

except where I note the person spoke with heavy sarcasm, I usually have the word not in there.

In all of the examples I'm thinking of, there's no indication of sarcasm. I'm thinking it's an Americanism.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

There's a term for those kinds of phrases, but I can't think of it.


Yeah, it's called a mix up. These usually occur because people drop words by accident.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ernest Bywater

@Grant

In all of the examples I'm thinking of, there's no indication of sarcasm.


I've come across this in UK, Aussie and US English, most of the time it's a mistake because they forgot to include the word not before have. However, I've seen it used in situations like I've done in the past, kind of like this:

Person A is standing on the bank watching a boat sink, the only person on it is a long term enemy. Person B says, "Aren't you going to help? He can't swim! Don't you care if he drowns?"

Person A turns to Person B, and says with heavy sarcasm, "I could care less?"

or

Person A turns to Person B, and says with heavy sarcasm, "I could care less? How?"

In both cases the sarcasm shows the person is incapable of caring less about what happens.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Person A turns to Person B, and says with heavy sarcasm, "I could care less?"

or

Person A turns to Person B, and says with heavy sarcasm, "I could care less? How?"

In both cases the sarcasm shows the person is incapable of caring less about what happens.

A writing technique that requires you to add "and says with heavy sarcasm" doesn't help the story much. That's just as heavy handed as "he said, with malicious intent".

However, what started with a simple mix-up of a dropped word, has since morphed into an accepted but illogical usages by wide segments of the population, who see absolutely no difference between "I could" and "I couldn't".

Authors, who spend their lives working with words should know better. Use at your own risk.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

heavy sarcasm" doesn't help the story much.


It's not a way I would recommend you use often, but used sparingly it can convey a heck of a lot more about the character and how they feel than just saying it the right way, which was the intent the couple of times I did it. Don't that way with heavy sarcasm enhances the emotional aspects and the depth of the hatred - which is what I was after at the time.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Don't that way with heavy sarcasm enhances the emotional aspects and the depth of the hatred - which is what I was after at the time.

Yes, it does, but it's more effective with a raised eyebrow or, at the least, a "sarcastic inflection".

I guess I prefer my sarcasm with a bit more nuance.

Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

There's a term for those kinds of phrases, but I can't think of it.


I just thought of it, but it's actually the opposite. It's when you have the "not" but don't mean not. It happens in a rhetorical question.

So "Isn't she leaving?" really means you think she is leaving. Or "Wasn't that movie great" means you thought the movie was great.

Replies:   Grant
Grant

@Switch Blayde

So "Isn't she leaving?" really means you think she is leaving. Or "Wasn't that movie great" means you thought the movie was great.

Yep, but both of those are questions. They're not making a statement.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Grant


Yep, but both of those are questions. They're not making a statement.


They're rhetorical questions so they are making a statement. For example, he's stating the movie was great.

Replies:   Grant
Grant

@Switch Blayde

They're rhetorical questions so they are making a statement. For example, he's stating the movie was great.

I don't see them as being rhetorical. A rhetorical question is one you ask, not expecting an answer. In both of the examples you used, the person speaking would be expecting an answer; however depending on the context in which they are made they could be rhetorical questions.

"Isn't she leaving?" as you said implies the person asking the question thought she was meant to be leaving, and would expect a response from whoever they were talking to.

"Wasn't that movie great?" is as you said; the person making the statement considered it to be great & they are asking whoever they are with if they feel the same way. A reply would be expected.

"Wasn't that movie great!" is a statement, not expecting a response. Being a statement it's not a rhetorical question. It's an odd way to make a statement (starting it with "Wasn't..." instead of "That was a..."), but then most people are odd.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Grant

A rhetorical question is one you ask, not expecting an answer. In both of the examples you used, the person speaking would be expecting an answer;


That's the point. No answer was expected. I actually used the examples from Grammar Girl's site. This is what she says:

You've probably heard rhetorical questions more often than you realize. You start a sentence with a negative word when you mean something positive. So "Wasn't that movie great?" means that you think the movie was great. It seems counterintuitive, but that's the way English works. It's called a rhetorical question, and it can end in either a question mark or an exclamation point, and in dialogue you can sometimes even have a speaker's rhetorical question end in a period (1).

Another example of a rhetorical question is "Isn't she leaving?" That question means you think the woman is leaving, but you want to confirm. Rhetorical questions like this take a negative form. If you make the "Isn't she leaving?" question positive, it becomes just a regular question: "Is she leaving?" If you ask "Is she leaving?" you don't know the answer; whereas with the rhetorical question "Isn't she leaving?" you are assuming she is leaving.

Replies:   Grant
Grant

@Switch Blayde

I actually used the examples from Grammar Girl's site.

I'm sorry to say, I don't agree with her.
As she has used them, it's as I mentioned previously- they are questions, requiring an answer. Sure, they indicate the questioner's belief/opinion, but they're not rhetorical questions as they stand IMHO.
Were someone (such as myself) to make those exact statements, and the person I was talking too didn't respond I'd either repeat them (in case they didn't hear me) or just be peeved that they were being a tool & ignoring me.
Depending on the preceding (and lesser extent following) conversation, they could be taken as rhetorical. But not as they stand.

slutsarah
Updated:

There are local differences in speech in each country that I know of. In the UK we would usually say "I couldn't care less". In the US I have heard people often use the "I could care less?" which confused me at first.

"Almost exactly" is definitely used in England and everyone here would understand it despite the use of the two words with different meanings.

When I travel to the US or Australia I find people saying things that make no sense to me and I either have to use the context or ask them to elaborate.

Sarah

Crumbly Writer

@slutsarah

There are local differences in speach in each country that I know of.

You mean like how "speach" is pronounced (and spelled)?

Replies:   slutsarah
slutsarah

@Crumbly Writer

:-) Fixed now!

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@slutsarah

Sorry, Sarah, I couldn't resist. But authors are all very quick to pick up on incorrect word usages or grammar slip-ups.

Replies:   bondsman
awnlee jawking

@Ernest Bywater

Another pairing of adverbs you will no doubt object to form a crossword clue in my newspaper today.

Almost certainly (2,5)

AJ

sejintenej

@slutsarah

When I travel to the US or Australia I find people saying things that make no sense to me and I either have to use the context or ask them to elaborate.

This is often a result of product names.
Sellotape (UK) = Scotch Tape (US) = Durex (Brasil and possibly Australia) BUT Durex (UK) = condom (US)= Preservativ (France)
In a company I worked for a lot of Head Office staff learned US English and such problems led to financial losses. Eventually we wrote a book of prohibited words and phrases. This often (?always) happens where a language migrates - look an Canadian v Belgian v French French for example. Even within a country the "same language" can become at least difficult - Rio carioca v São Paulo v Minero

Replies:   ustourist  tppm  Grant
bondsman

@Crumbly Writer

Crumbly Writer
10/28/2015, 3:51:39 PM

Sorry, Sarah, I couldn't resist. But authors are all very quick to pick up on incorrect word usages or grammar slip-ups.

Unless, of course, they are the source of the errors. :)

ustourist

@sejintenej

The difference I like most is when women in the US describe themselves as "thick", meaning somewhat chunky, whereas in the UK it is accepted as meaning stupid.
The difference that irritates me most is the incorrect use of "momentarily" in the US for 'in a moment', rather than the correct usage of 'for a moment', which is substantially different.
I hope that second word was on your prohibited list.

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej
Updated:

@ustourist


The difference I like most is when women in the US describe themselves as "thick", meaning somewhat chunky,


in the UK "thick as two short planks".

As for momentarily - yeuch, I didn't know that there exists a second meaning; the writer should be hung, drawn and quartered.

No, not on the prohibited list because that was solely for people writing in English whereas all our inward stuff was in Paulistano (a variety of Portuguese) or various south American versions of Spanish. Anything with the US started as verbal and they understood the potential for problems.

I did have several problems - my Madeiran secretary (native Portuguese speaker with a degree) couldn't translate that written Portuguese and one of my bosses claimed not to be able to understand me because I spoke a different dialect.

In Gibraltar many times I was warned that certain words must not be spoken in Spain. "Shoshi" - a term of endearment to a girl close to "darling" apparently might get your throat cut the other side of the border. "Que mono" indicates a girl is beautiful (or a nice bit o' crumpet) in Gib but in Spain is an insult - it means "monkey".

Replies:   ustourist
tppm

@sejintenej

look an Canadian v Belgian v French French for example.

v Cajun v Haitian

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej

@tppm

v Cajun v Haitian

I'm pretty ignorant about this; surely some forms of Cajun derive from Acadian French brought down by speakers thrown out of New England and Canada but I had thought that Haiti had once been French (Saint-Domingue) directly

Replies:   tppm
tppm

@sejintenej

And as a result they both speak versions of French different from the three previously mentioned, and from each other (though both are spoken in New Orleans). In fact Haitian (Creole) is even written differently ("French" words with English phonics).

I had a Cajun friend who recounted an incident from his visit to France. He once got in trouble for referring to a woman's genitals using a term of endearment common in Louisiana that turned out to mean chamber pot in Parisian.

ustourist

@sejintenej

"Que mono" indicates a girl is beautiful (or a nice bit o' crumpet) in Gib but in Spain is an insult - it means "monkey".


Not very flattering to the wenches on the Rock, is it?
I am guessing the Spanish deliberately twisted the meaning to create an insult in view of the politics involved, so it would be interesting to see how widespread the Spanish meaning is. Interesting, but pointless, so I won't lose sleep over it.

Replies:   sejintenej
Grant

@sejintenej

Durex (Brasil and possibly Australia)

Yep. Durex in Australia is (or at least was) sticky tape.
When Nan went over to New Zealand my Uncle told her "No matter what, don't ask for Durex if you want some sticky tape"
An 80 year old woman asking for Condoms at a newsagent would have resulted in some interesting responses.

sejintenej

@ustourist

"Que mono" indicates a girl is beautiful (or a nice bit o' crumpet) in Gib but in Spain is an insult - it means "monkey".
Not very flattering to the wenches on the Rock, is it?

I am guessing the Spanish deliberately twisted the meaning to create an insult in view of the politics involved,


The girls seem to appreciate it - it was a gorgeous piece of ass (Gibraltarian) that told me. Look in the European Spanish dictionary and you will find mono IS a monkey.
I have made so many mistakes in so many languages - and picked up quite a few females. If tengo frio means I am cold, tengo hambre is I am hungry, tengo seco means I am thirsty imagine being asked by a young girl across filled banking hall how I felt when it was 40° - my answer went around Gib in hours (and she went out with me a week later).

Don't know Spanish / Llanito? - use your dirtiest imagination.

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