FEBRUARY 1998

Adjectives

When nice is not so nice

When using a language that is not your own, however well you know it, there is almost always a tendency to fall back on certain words that you like, or that spring most readily to mind and to use these repeatedly with impunity. This is particularly so where adjectives are concerned.

I remember a teacher telling my class at school that a "nice umbrella" meant a "waterproof umbrella", but that you couldn't say "What a waterproof day!". The point was, of course, that we English-speakers tend to overuse the word "nice", when wishing to convey something or someone good, agreeable, pleasant, personable, amicable, friendly, lovely, attractive, beautiful, enjoyable, suitable, comfortable, effective, etc. To illustrate the point, let's look at an imaginary postcard written by a couple on holiday in Scotland, sent to two friends of theirs. In writing this card, they've only used one adjective (nice).

Dear Bill and Jenny,
We had a nice journey up here on the train, and are staying in a nice hotel overlooking a nice lake (or "loch", should I say, as we're in Scotland!), with nice views of the mountains in the distance. We've met another couple from Bishopsgate, would you believe - very nice people. The food's nice and as for activities, we can go for nice walks and cycle rides. The weather's been nice too, so we've been in luck there. Hope you had a nice time in Tuscany - we look forward to hearing about it.
Best regards,
Tom and Barbara

Would you be able to alter the text so that nice isn't used at all?
Try replacing the "nices" with the following possible alternative adjectives. Use each only once.
For the answer see the last paragraph.

A quick look at one or two other frequently used adjectives, and their possible replacements (or synonyms).
Horrible: awful, terrible, horrendous, frightful, dreadful
Hard: difficult, trying, awkward, challenging
Dirty: soiled, grimy, stained, unclean, filthy, greasy
Lively: sprightly, energetic, vivacious, bubbly
Big: large, ample, spacious, voluminous, outsized, extensive.

A thesaurus comes in handy here, as it gives a list of possible synonyms for a particular word, and this helps to ensure an imaginative and accurate rendering. Some words are graduations or nuances of the main adjective, and this serves to better qualify the noun where relevant (i.e. filthy is very dirty; "challenging" is a less negative concept than "awkward"; greasy denotes the kind of dirt, etc.).

Remember that all colours are adjectives and that these come closest to the noun where a colour is accompanied by another adjective, i.e.:
- a big black dog
- a long, flowing white coat.

The exception to this rule is where there is an adjective describing what the noun is made of. As this is more the essence of the noun, it always comes just before the latter. - a black leather jacket
- a lovely, red cotton dress.

And now for that postcard again. Wouldn't this sound better?:

Dear Bill and Jenny, We had an enjoyable journey up here on the train, and are staying in a comfortable hotel overlooking a beautiful lake (or "loch", should I say, as we're in Scotland!), with spectacular views of the mountains in the distance. We've met another couple from Bishopsgate, would you believe - very friendly people. The food's good and as for activities, we can go for bracing walks and cycle rides. The weather's been fine too, so we've been in luck there. Hope you had a lovely time in Tuscany - we look forward to hearing about it.
Best regards,
Tom and Barbara

Keith Worby