Writing description

Adjectives for description: 60 precise words

Finding the right adjectives for description is tough. Try these 7 tips, and create your own describing word dictionary:

Finding the right adjectives for description is tough. Try these 7 tips, and create your own describing word dictionary:

What is an adjective?

Adjectives are parts of speech used to modify nouns. They describe and make people and things more specific.

How do you identify an adjective? It typically appears right before the noun it describes. A tiny speck. A dazzling supernova.

Descriptive adjectives tell us what kind of person or object we’re looking at. They add specificity, giving shape, size, age, or other attributes.

Limiting adjectives tell us a noun’s quantity or a restriction about it. For example:

  • That speck is tiny (the adjective makes it clear we are referring to a particular speck and not another)
  • Three supernovas changed our understanding of space (out of all the supernovas ever, three are specified by the adjective).

This article focuses primarily on descriptive adjectives.

How to write punchy adjectives for description:

  1. Replace ‘very + adjective’
  2. Know connotations
  3. Note dazzling descriptions
  4. Find adjectives in metaphor
  5. Remember assonance and alliteration
  6. Find adjectives for description by origin
  7. Keep a list of strong adjectives handy

Let’s explore these description tips further:

1. Replace ‘very + adjective’

‘Very’ is useful to a point. If we say ‘the very small turtle’, we know we’re not reading about giant Galapagos ones.

Children often describe things using ‘very’ because it’s easier vocabulary we learn young.

In a story – even one for children – too much ‘very + adjective’ gets boring. Why? Because it lacks variety and specificity.

Consider these ‘very + adjective’ pairs and their alternatives:

Adjectives better than ‘very + word’

Very + adjectiveAlternative wordRoot Meaning/Origin
very smallminute‘made small’
very fastswift‘move in a course, sweep’
very rudeobnoxious‘exposed to harm’
very beautifulexquisite‘sought out’

The four examples above show the benefits of replacing ‘very + adjective’. Specific connotations, concision and precision.

2. Know connotations

Examining adjectives shows how subtle language is.

For example, compare ‘very beautiful’ and ‘exquisite’.

‘Very beautiful’ tells a reader well enough that a person or thing is visually appealing.

‘Exquisite’, though, implies qualities of rarity and demand in the root Latin origin of ‘sought out’.

We might write of an ‘exquisite necklace‘. The reader is able to picture it in a shop window, tantalizing passersby.

This is why it’s useful to examine words’ connotations.

Comparing adjectives helps, too.

For example, the difference between exquisite (sought after) and stunning (a beauty able to cause astonishment).

Quote on adjectives for description - Isabel Allende on big adjectives

3. Note dazzling descriptions

A simple way to become skilled at finding the right adjective is to collect your favourites.

When you’re reading and a description leaps out at you, write it down.

Let’s read, for example, Kent Haruf’s description of two aged brothers:

In the kitchen they removed their hats and hung them on pegs set into a board next to the door and began at once to wash up at the sink. Their faces were red and weather-blasted below their white foreheads, the coarse hair on their round heads grown iron-gray and as stiff as the roached mane of a horse.

Kent Haruf, Eventide (2004), p. 3 (our emphasis).

Note how rich Haruf’s intro to the McPheron brothers is.

The adjectives Haruf chooses for description mix simple colours (red and white) with more complex ones. The complex adjectives involve comparison (‘iron-gray’, ‘stiff as the roached mane of a horse’).

These are paired with qualities suggesting hard living (‘weather-blasted’, ‘coarse’).

Try to mix simple adjectives with more complex ones. The reds and whites with the iron-grays and custard yellows of life. Find more description examples in our guide to descriptive writing.

This is a more advanced technique for crafting description out of a shared metaphor.

Using extended metaphors: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Early in the novel, we read a vivid description of the tough father of the house, Macon Dead:

Solid, rumbling, likely to erupt without prior notice, Macon kept each member of his family awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to her. The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash, dulling their buttery complexions and choking the lilt out of what should have been girlish voices.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977), pp. 10-11

The description compares Macon to a volcano (‘likely to erupt without prior notice’).

Note how Morrison looks for descriptive phrases in the same metaphorical neighborhood.

Her description is varied because Morrison uses some adjectives, but also metaphorical, verbal phrases. ‘Sifted down on them like ash’, to describe the constant raining down, discomfort, of Macon’s disappointment.

This variety carries the description along.

Standard adjectives include:

  • Solid (describing Macon’s stature)
  • Awkward (describing the discomfort Macon creates in his family)
  • Buttery (describing his daughters’ complexions)
  • Girlish (describing a quality Macon’s daughters’ voices would have had, if not for his toughness)

Yet Morrison also includes describing words in the form of verbs. She describes the way Macon’s hatred ‘glittered’ and ‘sparked’ (extending the volcano metaphor).

The result? A paragraph alive with vivid and varied imagery and action, yet cohesive, too.

5. Remember assonance and alliteration

Assonance and alliteration are useful poetic devices to remember for descriptions.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. For example, the repeated ‘ay’ in ‘We lay, aimless, waiting for that hazy summer’s cooling.’

Here, the sound’s repetion creates a languid, lazy feeling.

Alliteration is the repetition of consonants.

For example, the repetition of sharp plosive ‘t’ and ‘p’ sounds in Wilfred Owen’s famous war poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. The sounds mimic gunfire:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.

Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, available on Poetry Foundation here.

When choosing adjectives for description, try reading the sentence aloud. How does it sound?

H.P. Lovecraft quote on why you should use precise adjectives

6. Find adjectives for description by origin

If you look back at the list of words to replace ‘very + adjective’, you see the words’ given origins.

Etymology (the origin of words) is a gift for crafting great description.

Look up adjectives’ root origins when unfamiliar. You may be surprised by the subtle meanings the right adjectives add.

7. Keep a strong list of adjectives handy

Build your own descriptive encyclopedia.

For example, here are 60 adjectives for descriptions, organised by category:

Adjectives for describing size, age, character and more

microscopicso small as to be only visible with a microscope
infinitesimalimmeasurably or incalculably small
minisculeextremely small or tiny
massiveforming or consisting of a large mass, having great size and weight or solidity
ancientbelonging to the very distant past
archaicvery old or old-fashioned
primordialexisting at or from the beginning of time
fresh(of food) recently made or obtained, not previously known or used
novelinterestingly new or unusual
lustroushaving lustre or shining
brilliant(of light or colour) very bright
sparklingshining brightly with flashes of light
glitteringshining with a shimmering or sparkling light
dulllacking bightness, vividness or sheen, not sharp
acute(unpleasant) present or experienced to a severe or intense degree.
honed(of a blade), sharpened, having been refined or perfected
precise(of a person) exact, accurate, and careful about details
blunt(of a person or remark) uncompromisingly forthright
edgytense, nervous, irritable
fouloffensive to the senses, especially through having a disgusting smell or taste or being dirty
putrid(of organic matter) decaying or rotting and emitting a fetid smell
aromatichaving a pleasant and distinctive smell
fragranthaving a pleasant or sweet smell
perfumednaturally having or producing a sweet, pleasant smell
delectable(of food or drink) delicious
delicioushighly pleasant to the taste
mouth-wateringarousing the appetite : tantalizingly delicious or appealing
bitterhaving a sharp, pungent taste or smell; not sweet
acridunpleasantly bitter or pungent
benevolentwell meaning and kindly
benigngentle and kind
genialfriendly and cheerful
belligerenthostile and aggressive
solicitouscharacterized by or showing interest or concern
uppityself-important, arrogant
blitheshowing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper
dourrelentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearance
obstinatestubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of action
ficklechanging frequently, especially as regards one’s loyalties or affections
fastidiousvery attentive to and concerned about accuracy and detail
pedanticexcessively concerned with minor details or rules; overscrupulous
stingymean; ungenerous
bellicosedemonstrating aggression and willingness to fight
po-facedhaving an assumed solemn, serious, or earnest expression or manner
archdeliberately or affectedly playful and teasing
coymaking a pretence of shyness or modesty which is intended to be alluring, reluctant to give details
insouciantshowing a casual lack of concern
unscrupuloushaving or showing no moral principles; not honest or fair
pragmaticdealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations
ceruleandeep blue in colour like a clear sky
mottledmarked with spots or smears of colour
variegatedexhibiting different colours, especially as irregular patches or streaks
kaleidoscopichaving complex patterns of colours; multicoloured
saturated(of colour) very bright, full, and free from an admixture of white.
elatedvery happy or proud; jubilant; in high spirits
glumlooking or feeling dejected; morose
chippercheerful and lively
sanguineoptimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation
gleefulexuberantly or triumphantly joyful

Develop your descriptions with the help of fun exercises and examples. Get How to Write Real Characters: Character Description, a practical workbook with exercises and supplementary videos.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

4 replies on “Adjectives for description: 60 precise words”

I’m new at writing a book. This helped me a lot to create better dialogs expressing emotions…something I’ve been having trouble with.

Dear Florencia,

That’ great to hear! Glad you’ve found the blog post so useful. Writing punchy adjectives that add sparkle and zing to a story is so important. The blog post lists a whole lot of adjectives for describing size, age, character and more.

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