Just an opinion … Adjectives and adverbs in policy writing

By on Mar 9, 2016 in Policy writing

Just an opinion … Adjectives and adverbs in policy writing

If the adjective and adverb count is high, what you are reading is more likely to be opinion than analysis.

Policy officers certainly have to write a lot: it is a core skill. There are reports exploring issues and options; submissions and memos; formal policy statements; manuals and handbooks; Acts, regulations and codes; handouts and brochures.

Policy writing is usually factual, not the writer’s opinion, and the use (and overuse) of adjectives and adverbs points to opinion.

These two parts of speech perform an important function in English writing: they modify other words, adding colour, light and shade. We need adjectives and adverbs to convey meaning properly, to engage our readers, and to state facts accurately.

But modifying words are frail.[1] They cannot carry the weight of meaning, only modify it. Meaning lies in the strong parts of speech that make sentences, nouns and verbs.

Writing tipsters invariably call for fewer adjectives, especially redundant ones, and often for no adverbs at all:

 The adverb is not your friend … The road to hell is paved with adverbs.[2]

Stephen King

Adjectives describe, or in the language of grammarians, ‘modify’ nouns. Less commonly they modify pronouns. They can be a single word, or an adjectival phrase, and can appear before or after the modified noun.

Examples: It was a long report. Poor me, having to edit it.

The recent Cabinet-driven reform made nobody happy: housing policy is messy.

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

The Minister nodded, as if she understood the extremely long report: she wanted to deliver housing to the needy, not become a bureaucrat.

Many adverbs end in –ly, but lots do not (eg very, sometimes, so, seldom).

There are lots of –ly words that are not adverbs: this page[3] lists 100 –ly words that are not but actually adjectives, nouns, verbs or interjections.

While cutting back on adjectives and adverbs is good advice in general writing, there is a special reason to be prudent about them in policy writing: the more adjectives and adverbs, the more likely the writing is opinion not factual analysis. A high adjective count and the writing is more likely designed to persuade and sway than inform or convince.

Good policy writing will not be loaded with adjectives and adverbs, but use them for accurate description, designed to help decision-makers understand the facts and others to understand the policy and act accordingly.

[1] to use the description of one writing guide: “don’t ask them to do more work than they should”. http://www.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adjectives.htm

[2] Stephen King. (2000) On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner, p 124-125

[3] http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2014/03/non-adverbs-that-end-in-ly/