Adjectives for description: 60 precise words

Adjectives for description: 60 precise words

Finding the right adjectives for description in a story is tough. Try these 7 tips and see a table of describing words and their insightful origins:

Contents

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

Definition: What’s 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.

So how can you find the right describing words?

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 simpler vocabulary we learn young.

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

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

Adjectives that replace ‘very + word’

Very + adjectiveAlternative wordMeaning
very smallminute‘made small’, with connotations from Latin origins of ‘the sixtieth of a degree’.
very fastswiftfrom Old English swīfan ‘move in a course, sweep’
very rudeobnoxiousfrom Latin obnoxious meaning ‘exposed to harm’, also connotations of bad odour
very beautifulexquisitefrom Latin exquisit- meaning ‘sought out’

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

2. Consider connotations

Examining adjectives for description shows how subtle language is.

For example, take the above comparison between ‘very beautiful’ and ‘exquisite’.

‘Very beautiful’ communicates well enough that a person or thing has visual appeal or refinement.

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

We might write of an ‘exquisite necklace‘ and the reader might immediately picture it in a shop window, tantalizing passersby in the street.

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 | Now Novel

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 at the start of his novel Eventide:

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 involving 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 fresh custard yellows of life.

This is a more advanced technique for crafting description courtesy of Toni Morrison’s beautiful Song of Solomon.

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. Phrases such as ‘sifted down on them like ash’, to describe the constant raining down 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, such as the way Macon’s hatred ‘glittered’ and ‘sparked’ (which draw from the volcano metaphor).

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

5. Remember assonance and alliteration

Assonance and alliteration are useful poetic devices to remember when choosing adjectives for description.

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?

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 with them. You may be surprised by the subtle shades of meaning 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 description and their origins

AdjectiveCategory/What it DescribesDefinitionOrigin/Connotations
microscopicsizeso small as to be only visible with a microscopeGreek mikros (small) plus looking in a specified direction (-scopic)
gargantuansizeenormousLate 16th century, from Gargantua, the name of a hungry giant in a book by Rabelais
infinitesimalsizeimmeasurably or incalculably smallfrom Latin infinitus (not finished/finite) plus –centesimal (division into hundredths)
minisculesizeextremely small or tinyfrom Latin minisculus (rather less, small); as an adjective from 1727 in printing, used to refer to lowercase letters
massivesizeforming or consisting of a large mass, having great size and weight or solidityfrom Old French, massif meaning ‘bulky, solid’
ancientagebelonging to the very distant pastfrom Old French, ‘old, long-standing’
archaicagevery old or old-fashionedfrom Greek, arkhaios meaning ‘ancient, old-fashioned, antiquated, primitive’
primordialageexisting at or from the beginning of timefrom Latin primordialis, ‘first of all’
freshage(of food) recently made or obtained, not previously known or usedfrom Old English fersc ‘not salt, fit for drinking’
novelageinterestingly new or unusualfrom Old French, ‘new, young, fresh, recent; additional; early, soon’
lustrousluminosityhaving lustre or shiningfrom Latin lustrare meaning to illuminate or shine over
brilliantluminosity(of light or colour) very brightfrom French brillant, ‘sparkling, shining’
sparklingluminosityshining brightly with flashes of lightfrom Middle English, diminutive of ‘spark’ (a small, fiery particle)
glitteringluminosityshining with a shimmering or sparkling lightfrom Proto-Germanic glit- meaning ‘shining, bright’
dullluminosity (also sharpness)lacking bightness, vividness or sheen, not sharpfrom Old English dol, ‘dull-witted, foolish’, of color from early 15c
acutesharpness(of an unpleasant or unwelcome situation or phenomenon) present or experienced to a severe or intense degree.from Latin acus, meaning ‘needle’
honedsharpness(of a blade), sharpened, having been refined or perfected over a period of timefrom Old English hān, meaning ‘stone’ (of a sharpening stone)
precisesharpness(of a person) exact, accurate, and careful about details, marked by exactness and accuracy of expression or detailfrom Latin praecidere, meaning ‘to cut in advance’
bluntsharpness(of a cutting implement) not having a sharp edge or point, (of a person or remark) uncompromisingly forthrightpossibly related to Old Norse blunda, to ‘shut the eyes’
edgysharpnesstense, nervous, irritablefrom Old English ecg, meaning ‘sharpened side of a blade’
foulsenses (smell)offensive to the senses, especially through having a disgusting smell or taste or being dirtyrelated to Old Norse fúll (‘foul’), Dutch vuil (‘dirty’), and German faul (‘rotten, lazy’)
putridsenses (smell)(of organic matter) decaying or rotting and emitting a fetid smellfrom Latin putris (‘rotten, crumbling’) related to putere (‘to stink’)
aromaticsenses (smell)having a pleasant and distinctive smellvia Latin from Greek arōma, meaning ‘spice’
fragrantsenses (smell)having a pleasant or sweet smellfrom Latin fragrant- (‘smelling sweet’), from the verb fragrare
perfumedsenses (smell)naturally having or producing a sweet, pleasant smell, impregnated or scented with a sweet-smelling substancefrom obsolete Italian parfumare, literally ‘to smoke through’
delectablesenses (taste)(of food or drink) deliciousfrom Latin delectabilis, from delectare ‘to charm’
delicioussenses (taste)highly pleasant to the tastefrom Latin deliciae (plural) ‘delight, pleasure’
mouth-wateringsenses (taste)arousing the appetite : tantalizingly delicious or appealingModern English, (1822), from mouth (n.) + water (v.)
bittersenses (taste)having a sharp, pungent taste or smell; not sweetOld English, biter (‘having a harsh taste, sharp, cutting; angry, full of animosity; cruel’)
acridsenses (taste, smell)unpleasantly bitter or pungentfrom Latin acer, acri- ‘sharp, pungent’
benevolentcharacterwell meaning and kindlyfrom Latin bene volent- ‘well wishing’,’, from bene ‘well’ + velle ‘to wish’.
benigncharactergentle and kindfrom Latin benignus, probably from bene ‘well’ + -genus ‘-born’
genialcharacterfriendly and cheerfulfrom Latin genialis (pleasant, festive)
belligerentcharacterhostile and aggressivefrom Latin belligerant- (‘waging war’)
solicitouscharactercharacterized by or showing interest or concernfrom Latin sollicitus (‘anxious’)
uppitycharacterself-important, arrogantfrom 19th Century, a fanciful formation from ‘up’
blithecharactershowing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improperfrom Old English bliþe (‘joyous, kind, cheerful, pleasant’)
dourcharacterrelentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearanceprobably from Scottish Gaelic dúr (‘dull, obstinate, stupid’), perhaps from Latin durus (‘hard’)
obstinatecharacterstubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of actionfrom Latin obstinatus, past participle of obstinare (‘persist’)
ficklecharacterchanging frequently, especially as regards one’s loyalties or affectionsfrom Old English, ficol (‘deceitful’)
fastidiouscharactervery attentive to and concerned about accuracy and detailfrom Latin fastidium ‘loathing’. The word originally meant ‘disagreeable’, later ‘disgusted’
pedanticcharacterexcessively concerned with minor details or rules; overscrupulousfrom Italian pedante, literally ‘teacher, schoolmaster’
stingycharactermean; ungenerous1650s, of uncertain origin, perhaps a dialectal alteration of earlier stingy (‘biting, sharp, stinging’)
bellicosecharacterdemonstrating aggression and willingness to fightfrom Latin bellicosus, from bellicus (‘warlike’)
po-facedcharacterhaving an assumed solemn, serious, or earnest expression or manner : piously or hypocritically solemnUncertain, probably from po, abbreviated slang based on French pot de chambre (“chamber pot”), after the face someone would make if presented with a full one
archcharacterdeliberately or affectedly playful and teasingfrom ‘chief, principal’, the prefix figured in so many derogatory uses (arch-rogue, arch-knave, etc.) that by mid-17c. it had acquired a meaning of ‘roguish, mischievous’
coycharactermaking a pretence of shyness or modesty which is intended to be alluring, reluctant to give detailsfrom Latin quietus, the original sense was ‘quiet, still’
insouciantcharactershowing a casual lack of concernfrom French insouciant (‘careless, thoughtless, heedless’) from in- (‘not’) + souciant (‘caring’)
unscrupulouscharacterhaving or showing no moral principles; not honest or fairfrom Latin from Latin scrupulus (‘uneasiness, anxiety, pricking of conscience’), with prefix un- (not having)
pragmaticcharacterdealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerationsfrom Greek pragmatikos (‘relating to fact’), from pragma (‘deed’)
ceruleancolourdeep blue in colour like a clear skyfrom Latin caeruleus (‘sky blue’), from caelum ‘sky’.
mottledcolourmarked with spots or smears of colourlate 18th century: probably a back-formation from motley
variegatedcolourexhibiting different colours, especially as irregular patches or streaksfrom Latin variegat- (‘made varied’)
kaleidoscopiccolourhaving complex patterns of colours; multicolouredfrom Greek kalos (‘beautiful, beauteous’) + eidos (‘shape’) + -scopic (‘looking’)
saturatedcolour(of colour) very bright, full, and free from an admixture of white.from Latin saturat- (‘filled, glutted’), from the verb saturare
elatedemotion/moodvery happy or proud; jubilant; in high spiritsfrom Latin elat- (‘raised’)
glumemotion/moodlooking or feeling dejected; morosemid 16th century: related to dialect glum (‘to frown’), variant of gloom
chipperemotion/moodcheerful and livelymid 19th century: perhaps from northern English dialect kipper (‘lively’)
sanguineemotion/moodoptimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situationfrom Old French sanguin(e) (‘blood red’)
gleefulemotion/moodexuberantly or triumphantly joyfulOld English gliu, gliw, gleow (‘entertainment, mirth (usually implying music); jest, play, sport’)


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.

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