The late Leo Burnett was a legendary advertising genius, who launched his own agency in 1935, during the Great Depression. It almost went under during those early years but, by the time of Burnett’s death in 1971, it had annual revenues of $400 million, and would go on to worldwide fame and fortune with annual revenues measured in billions of dollars. In 1999, TIME magazine named him among the “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.”
Throughout his career, Burnett was a relentless critic of adjectives, claiming that: “Dull and exaggerated copy is due to the excess use of adjectives.” To prove it, he once asked his staff to compare the number of adjectives in 62 ads which had failed to those in various classics. In the failed ads, adjectives amounted to nearly one-quarter of the words, while the other works averaged about half that figure. Burnett’s conclusion: use fewer adjectives and more verbs, which increase the believability of stories, articles and promotional materials.
Burnett was in good company. Larry McMurtry, author of 27 novels and winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, wrote: “Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two.”
Mark Twain offered this advice: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” And the late Clifton Fadiman, noted intellectual and host of the long-running radio and television quiz show, Information Please, called the adjective “the banana peel of the parts of speech.”
So, if you want to avoid slip-ups in your writing, keeping those adjectives to a minimum is advice worth taking.