Slippery Words: The Nuance of Adjectives

Like Lainey and Amanda, I think “strong” is perhaps the strongest (oops) example of a loose and cliched descriptor. “Your writing is really strong” is essentially the editor’s cop-out—instead of offering direct feedback (“your dialogue is sharp,” “your vocabulary is precise,” “your argument is lucid”), the reader avoids the task, choosing a word so overused that it shields itself from its own meaninglessness. There are other examples, of course:

Conversational: The word “conversational” describes writing that is neither strictly “academic” nor “creative” (whatever those binary designations mean)—writing that uses the second person, asks rhetorical questions, or is written for younger audiences. However, because very little non-fiction is actually written to reflect our day-to-day conversations, this descriptor carries with it layers of judgement: tied up in “conversational” is an implied lack of sophistication, the notion that “conversational” writing communicates simple ideas with simple vocabulary.

Poetic: On one level, this descriptor suggests some sort of relationship to poetic form—it’s used to describe prose that is lyrical, rhythmic, or decorated with metaphors. There’s certainly a level of nature imagery that goes along with this. Simultaneously, however, it could be used to conceal the judgement that a piece is too abstract. In this vein, “poetic” could actually be someone’s attempt to say: “this is entirely unintelligible.”

Critical: Much like the word analytical, “critical” is often used to connote some sort of sophistication, be it the specificity of content or the (perceived) complexity of language. In this way, “critical” identifies something that is markedly UNcreative, implying that writing a thesis isn’t in fact a creative act, that descriptive writing doesn’t belong in academia. Similarly, “critical” often becomes a means of assuming negativity—to students in particular, a “critical” article will spend pages and pages identifying problems and pointing out issues while failing to offer solutions.

One thought to “Slippery Words: The Nuance of Adjectives”

  1. Stina,

    100% agree with you’re description of “conversational”. In my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher actually told me she thought that my rough draft of my essay on MacBeth (supposed to be an analytical essay, of course) was “too conversational”. I thought the exact same thing that you said in your blog = lacked sophistication.

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