A client has asked me make the following deletions in a report I’d prepared for them on a public transit planning issue:
“… serious issues of bus access …”
” … to flow through these critical points …”
” … without extreme and circuitous deviations …”
The deleted words are all “emphatic adjectives,” words that mean nothing more than “Hey! This bit here is important!” Serious, critical, and extreme are all-purpose emphatic adjectives, while circuitous becomes emphatic if it’s used redundantly as I did here, “circuitous deviations,” because of course all deviations are circuitous.
A cynical view of these deletions would say that such adjectives increase pressure on the client to do something about an issue and are unwelcome only for that reason.
But the client is right. I often use emphatic adjectives to underscore points that I want the reader to remember because I know how important they are, but I should really replace each of them with a sentence or phrase that describes the consequence of ignoring the point in question. For example, instead of speaking of “serious issues of bus access,” I should have said something like “potential obstacles to reliable bus operations accessing the station.” In other words, rather than pressure the reader with an alarm-word like serious or critical, I should describe what’s at stake more objectively so that the reader can make her own judgment. Ultimately, our own judgments are the ones most likely to motivate us.
This doesn’t mean I’m planning to swear off emphatic adjectives entirely; some clients want me to be emphatic, and in many contexts — such as short editorial or letter to the editor — emphatic adjectives can be the only way to get attention. But I do think there’s a general point here that’s helpful for both professonal and activist writing. Do you toss in lots of emphatic adjectives — serious, critical, extreme, devastating, alarming — to pressure the reader? Would it be better, in a few more words, to enlighten her?