Our inspiration for this column comes from a key stage 3 commentary on The War of the Worlds: "This bit of writing from HG Wells is very descriptive and he uses many adjectives." It's pretty easy to read between the lines here: description is good and is achieved by using lots of adjectives.
Schools have often reinforced this idea. Pupils have been encouraged to "write a description" and "put in more descriptive detail". The assumption is that adjectives "do" description. But what connection is there, if any, between "descriptive" writing and using many adjectives? Should we measure progress at KS3 by counting adjectives?
Let's start with the link between description and adjectives. This ought to be easy if adjectives are "describing words". If you combine "tall" with "boy", it's obvious that "tall" describes the boy concerned - it describes the boy's size.
But are adjectives really "describing words"? We're not quite sure what "description" is, but let's suppose it means giving information about someone or something. Do adjectives really hold sole rights on description? Nouns can be pretty descriptive too - giants, dwarves and elves have clear and rich pictures in our minds, not to mention disasters, schools and volcanoes. Then there are verbs like "meander", "canter" and "bask", and even adverbs often add descriptive details to a scene - think of "callously" or "triumphantly". As you've no doubt gathered, we don't think much of the idea that what makes adjectives distinctive is that they "describe", so adjectives don't in themselves make a piece of writing "descriptive". What does make them stand out is their grammar. They have two possible grammatical uses:
* as modifier of a noun, as in "tall boy" (this is called the "attributive" use),
* as complement of a verb, such as "be", as in "The boy is tall" (the "predicative" use).
In both cases, the adjective enriches a description whose outline has already been provided by a noun. So if you want rich descriptions, adjectives do come in very handy, although they're by no means the only "describing" words.
Now what about adjectives and progress at KS3? Surprisingly, perhaps, one piece of unpublished research we've seen suggests that adjectives really are a sign of maturity at KS3 - the more, the better. Roughly speaking, each grade level has one extra adjective per 100 words than the one below it - about seven adjectives at level 7, six at level 6 and so on down to three at level 3. Of course we're not suggesting that adjectives are the only thing that counts - there were plenty of other differences as well.
But even so, adjectives are clearly a growth point at KS3. The key of course is that they are interesting, thoughtful, precise, appropriate adjectives - and not overused!
Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk