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I have the habit of using paired adjectives in my writing:

  • The noise from the engine lulled her with its slow and monotonous rythim ...
  • ... the lights on the ceiling filled the room in a soft and warm hue ...
  • ... his skin was smooth and thin, like paper ...

The examples may be not 100% accurate since I don't usually write in english, but let's pretend.

Now, sometimes even single adjectives are frowned upon (What's with all the hate on adjectives and adverbs?) - so by logic paired adjectives shouldn't be any better. I remember reading reviews criticizing this very aspect in published novels, but I never understood if there are solid reasons to back up this opinion.

So, are paired adjectives bad style - and if so, why?

Addendum: I'm specifically asking about novels and fiction.

Related question, in technical-writing:

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    This is one of those things that might be treated differently by different languages. Like using 'said' all the time is "good writing" in English, but "bad writing" in French - French prefers said-bookisms. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 5 at 12:21
  • @Galastel, yes, that's definetly possible. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 13:24
  • @Galastel Using 'said' all the time is "OK" in English. I've even read a few authors who can get away with it and be considered "good", but generally, it's still poor practice. It comes down to repetition is sometimes useful but should always be used carefully. – Auspex Mar 5 at 14:12
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    You haven't said what the genre is? Novels? But whatever it is, if you've noticed that this has become a habit, then it's probably something you are doing too often, and which would be more effective if used more sparingly. – Michael Kay Mar 5 at 14:40
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    @Liquid yes, I think so. In journalism and technical writing people are looking for factual information. In novels they are looking for colour and mood. – Michael Kay Mar 5 at 14:44
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The double adjectives might be creating a sentence rhythm that feels strong while you write because it seems to "double bounce" in a smooth way – in this case it's not a fast bounce that picks up speed, it is a slow bounce that causes the pace of reading to become deliberate, like when you take a deep breath and let it out. "One and two…, ahhhh"

I'm going to start a writing war and say ADJECTIVES ARE GOOD (in general), but what might be catching your critical eye is that you notice it keeps happening, and maybe the 2 adjectives are not really as strong as a well-chosen single word, or maybe the double-bounce slow pace doesn't match the tone you are trying to achieve for the scene.

It's ok, that's what re-writing is for. If the double adjective helps you get through the first draft, and you change it on the re-write, that's a normal part of writing. The first draft will end up having these language rhythms and figures of speech that come out of habit and familiarity. Now that you have recognized your pattern, you can decide how to deal with it.

It works in the context of slowing down, of slow breathing, of a character reassuring herself that everything is fine. Obviously you will want to break that pattern or avoid it when everything is not fine. You could even attach the quirk to one character who speaks in these rhythmic patterns as a way to hypnotize or reassure, and then later when you break the pattern we know they are not ok.

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    I would add that sometimes double adjectives are used to create alliteration. The impact of these are hard to underestimate; you can find them in numerous idioms that have stood the test of time. ("Slow and steady", "fair and square", "short and sweet", "ready and steady" or "ready and raring to go", write any adjective with "and" behind it into google and see) – Stian Yttervik Mar 5 at 14:29
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    Agree. And the use of idioms is sometimes frowned upon as bad writing, but I feel it works in the same way. It has a sing-song, reassuring feeling. It can be used as a character tool to show an internal state. – wetcircuit Mar 5 at 14:32
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As a reader, I think that adjectives are helpful in making a better image of what the writer is trying to say. But repeating adjectives that have almost the same or similar meaning (e.g. slow and monotonous, soft and warm, thin and frail) would be considered a bad style, as it would be counted as irrelevant explanation and waste of words, and would definitely bore the reader.

But pairing adjectives like smooth and thin, etc is fine as they both describe completely different properties of the paper and one of them can not replace the other.

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    While "repeating adjectives that have almost the same or similar meaning" might indeed be bad style, I do not agree on the examples. slow and monotonous are two distinct properties, so are soft and warm. For me these combinations constitute a very pictorial language. – Paul Kertscher Mar 6 at 9:50
2

As in so many instances with English, it all depends.

The practice is most often abused by overuse. If all of your adjectives are double, this will be noticeable, and this can be either good or bad.

Most English speakers don't use double adjectives most of the time. If you do use exclusively (or even predominantly) double adjectives, this will ordinarily be seen as peculiar and distracting.

You can use this, however, if a particular character always does it, and it will establish the character as distinct. Probably a bit annoying or weird, but distinct.

TL;DR - You can do it in moderation. Grammatically it's correct, but stylistically it's dangerous, particularly if you do it a lot. Unless you make it work for you. As a writer who does not normally write in English, don't push your luck. Moderation in all things.

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Stately, plump Buck Mulligan ...

This is one of the more famous opening lines, from one of the most renowned masters of the form.
Ulysses If Joyce can use these two paired adjectives to begin setting the scene so well, this @Liquid is surely an example of a pluterperfectly recommendable style.

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I think I might choose a comma, rather than a conjunction, in such a case, e.g.: "The slow, monotonous rhythm" but I don't think it's actually wrong to use a conjunction.

  • If the adjectives can be placed before the noun they modify. If placed after they form a list and require a conjunction. And only if the pair of adjectives have the same type do you need a comma. Consider "The slow monotonous rhythm". – Dan D. Mar 7 at 0:09
  • I think this is a solid rule of thumb. You might want to leave off the conjunction in the postfix case, also, if you are trying to create an impression of trailing off. As to the prefix case, yes, I agree, the comma could probably be omitted there. – Glenn Lasher Mar 8 at 14:10
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I would strive for variety in your writing, so the fact that you've already noticed a pattern means you need to be careful. Overuse of that single technique - even if you choose the perfect pair every time - will turn you into a one-trick pony.

I like where @wetcircuit was going with their answer, but want to expound just a little more.

Number of words used to describe something:

3 words: Good rhythm. Readers love groups of three.

She was the queen's daughter, no doubt: dark, beautiful, deadly.

2 words: Good at elaborating or showing contrast.

Her bright, fancy dress hid a cold and sinister heart.

1 word: Sometimes gives the most impact.

The grin on her face could only mean one thing. Trouble.

Choose the right number of adjectives for your sentence, recognizing that these are flexible and will depend on context and how recently you used that same technique.

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    Does your last example work grammatically? I would have expected a colon there. (I do understand that writers will bend the rules for effect, but that example seems off to me.) – Kenneth K. Mar 5 at 20:58
  • @KennethK.It's definitely a sentence I could happen upon in a modern novel. Grammatically I'm not too worried about it, and colloquially I know it's good. – icanfathom Mar 5 at 21:32

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