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Don't disparage the adjective

Little maxims about writing litter the Internet, and, like much advice about writing, they are apt to lead you astray if you take them too seriously. I’m thinking in particular about “Write with nouns and verbs instead of adjectives” and “When you meet an adverb, kill it.”

Yes, if you do encumber your sentences with a profusion of adjectives and adverbs, your texts may come to sound like the Tom Swift stories. You know: “Tom handed over the rolls he had grabbed up when they ran from the shop, just before the explosion took place, and, while his companion spread them out on his knee, as he sat on an upturned barrel, the lad walked toward the rear of the large yard. It was enclosed by a high board fence, with a locked gate, but Tom, undoing the fastenings, stepped out into the broad, green meadow at the rear of his father’s property.” Feh.

But let me also point out an example from a master that I have cited before, Vladimir Nabokov’s deadly one-paragraph portrait of an enduring type, the academic charlatan, in Pnin:

Two interesting characteristics distinguished Leonard Blorenge, Chairman of French Literature and Language; he disliked Literature and he had no French. This did not prevent him from traveling tremendous distances to attend Modern Language conventions, at which he would flaunt his ineptitude as if it were some majestic whim, and parry with great thrusts of healthy lodge humor any attempt to inveigle him into the subtleties of the parley-voo. A highly esteemed money-getter, he had recently induced a rich old man, whom three great universities had courted in vain, to promote with a fantastic endowment a riot of research conducted by graduates under the direction of Dr. Slavski, a Canadian, toward the erection on a hill near Waindell, of a “French Village,” two streets and a square, to be copied from those of the ancient little burg of Vandel in the Dordogne. Despite the grandiose element always present in his administrative illuminations, Blorenge was personally a man of ascetic tastes. He had happened to go to school with Sam Poore, Waindell’s President, and for many years, regularly, even after the latter had lost his sight, the two would go fishing together on a bleak, wind-raked lake, at the end of a gravel lane lined with fireweed, seventy miles north of Waindell, in the kind of dreary brush country—scrub oak and nursery pine—that, in terms of nature, is the counterpart of a slum. His wife, a sweet woman of simple antecedents, referred to him at her club as “Professor Blorenge.” He gave a course entitled “Great Frenchmen,” which he had had his secretary copy out from a set of The Hastings Historical and Philosophical Magazine for 1882-94, discovered by him in an attic and not represented in the College Library.

Interesting is not an adjective one is well advised to use, but Nabokov uses it strategically. Interesting usually telegraphs little more than a mild flicker, but the understatement is turned upside down with the immediate discovery that the chairman of the French department lacks so much as a shred of the language.

Blorenge treats his deficiency as if it were a majestic whim and fends off Francophones with great thrusts of healthy lodge humor. Imagine the flatness of that sentence without the adjectives.

He and the college president go fishing on a bleak, wind-raked lake in dreary brush country—the adjectives ramming home the poverty of their amusement.

And there is Mrs. Blorenge, a sweet woman of simple antecedents, a loving character assassination in six words. That she refers to her husband as “Professor Blorenge” at her club is the ganache on the gateau.

Shunning adjectives and writing with any old nouns and verbs, even if you eschew the passive voice, is not going to result in mastery. What matters is not the parts of speech but rather how much each word contributes to the overall effect.

Maxims can only carry you a little way forward. What you need to do is study why low-grade prose (easily found if you subscribe to a daily newspaper or have access to the Internet) never gets aloft, and why first-rate prose soars. That is when you will begin to get somewhere yourself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

John,
Any view on the use of "felonious" as an adjective? The specific use is felonious considerations.

For "the ran form" read "they ran from" (or so I assume); for "sue" read "use". There is also a clash in number between "roll" and "them", and no way to tell which one to fix.

In any case, I don't think the problem with the Tom Swift sentence is the adjectives, it's the fact that it needs to be broken up. Here's Revision A, which just excises the adjectives:

“Tom handed over the rolls he had grabbed up when they ran from the shop, just before the explosion took place, and, while his companion spread them out on his knee, as he sat on an barrel, the lad walked toward the rear of the yard. It was enclosed by a board fence, with a gate, but Tom, undoing the fastenings, stepped out into the meadow at the rear of his father’s property.”

And here's Revision B, which keeps the adjectives but does structural repairs:

“Tom handed over the rolls he had grabbed up when they ran from the shop just before the explosion took place. While his companion spread them out on his knee as he sat on an upturned barrel, Tom walked toward the rear of the large yard. It was enclosed by a high board fence with a locked gate. Tom undid the fastenings and stepped out into the broad green meadow at the rear of his father’s property.”

Neither version will win a prize for masterly writing, but I think Revision B is much better.

Thank you, Mr. Cowan, for pointing out the typos.

Further, in explosion took place, I think that took place could be safely excised.

And as for the broad, green meadow, isn't broad, green our default expectation of a meadow? If we're going to describe a meadow, we might as well give it a feature of some interest. Let it have waist-high grass or slope to a creek or be infested with chiggers.

As to "felonious considerations," I'd need more context.

"The repeated acts are each fraudulent and are each subject to felonious considerations."

Makes it look to me as if the considerations rather than the acts are to be thought felonious.

That's what I thought too. It was part of a legal case. Thanks.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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