‘Nice’ has long been the bête noire of English teachers, a bland, boring adjective that really doesn’t roll up its sleeves and earn its place in a sentence. It’s a lazy word that does little to describe a feeling or event, or help the reader paint a picture of what’s going on.
There are plenty of over-used words when it comes to describing animals, too. Kittens are always cute, monkeys are cheeky, and, excuse me while I yawn, lions are fearless and brave.
But English is a much richer language than this, and with a bit of imagination you can help your children bring their stories to life with some strong, well-chosen words, especially when it comes to the Animal Kingdom.
Encourage your children to think about the animal they’re describing. How big is it? How does it move? Is it hairy, furry or scaly? Spiky, prickly or spiny? Does it smell? Is it noisy?
Take snakes. Slither’s good, but they coil and twist, too, and describing them as venomous rather than poisonous seems to add extra layer of menace. Elephants are big, but they could also be gigantic, massive or huge, while monkeys can be agile as they leap through the trees, while on the ground they can be inquisitive and curious as they search for food.
Going back in time, dinosaurs scream out for a whole range of great adjectives. Some, like the Stegosaurus can be cumbersome and lumbering, others like the Velociraptor are nimble and energetic, while the Tyrannosaurus, as well as being fearsome and terrifying, is always depicted as having something of a grumpy air about him.
Writers often give animals human characteristics - it’s called personification - and it’s how we come to see owls as wise and foxes as cunning and sly. It’s how donkeys got their reputation for being obstinate and stubborn, weasels their status as sneaky and thieving, and dogs their standing as loyal and obedient .
Some people, perhaps rightly, don’t agree with giving human ‘qualities’ to animals because, after all, animals are as they are for a reason. Take the sloth. Yes, it may be slow and lethargic, moving at around two metres an hour, spending up to 20 hours a day asleep, hanging from a branch. But does that make it lazy, or is it in fact clever because this sedate pace allows green algae to grows on its fur, helping to camouflage it from potential predators?
Let’s go back to that kitten. It could be adorable too, and the chances are it’s soft, fluffy and furry, and perhaps even playful and friendly. But though Tiddles might purr a lot and enjoy having his tummy tickled, to a mouse or sparrow he is bloodthirsty and savage!
You can also have a lot of fun with collective nouns. Everyone’s heard of a flock of sheep and a pack of wolves, but what kind of picture does a murder of crows conjure up, or a parliament of owls? Would you survive coming across an ambush of tigers or live to tell the tale if you stumbled upon a bloat of hippopotamuses, let alone a crash of rhinos?
As children get older, encouraging them to think a bit harder about the adjectives they use is an important way of expanding their vocabularies. This will enable them to express themselves more accurately and communicate more effectively; skills threatened by the creeping influence of text speak but nevertheless vital for adult life. And it will make family games of Scrabble much more entertaining!