February 18, 2004

Those who take the adjectives from the table

It is not entirely easy to tell when Ben Yagoda's pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education are evidencing his dry wit and when they are being serious. But I hope he is not at all serious in his apparent partial agreement with the experts on writing who insist that adjectives are bad. (Most of his article is organized around examples of adjective use that he clearly loves.) I really don't know how any of these people managed to reach the stage of being thought expert. How could "one of the few points on which the sages of writing agree" possibly be that "it is good to avoid them" when to utter the very thought you need the adjective good? How could William Zinsser possibly be serious in saying that most adjectives are "unnecessary" when he couldn't finish his sentence without the adjective unnecessary? How could Yagoda himself suggest that writers mainly use adjectives because they are "they either haven't, or are afraid they haven't, provided sufficient data", while using the adjectives afraid and sufficient in order to say it? Was he afraid of having insufficient data when he wrote his sentence? Or is he above the rest of us?

He is right, of course, that the so-called experts condemn the adjective. If you want to see what the very worst of the usage and style recommenders say, it is always a good idea to turn to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style first. Sure enough, on page 71 of the 4th edition, they say: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." As usual, moronic advice, and impossible to follow. And in the very next sentence they use adjectives themselves, of course. (An indecisive disjunction of adjectives, in fact: "weak or inaccurate". Well which is it? Be clear, they would say to you if you wrote that.)

What do these writing experts think they are doing trying to take something as subtle as how to write well and boil it down to maxims as simple as the avoidance of one particular grammatical category? Are they... Well, I'm really going to need an adjective to say this... Are they insane?

Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6% of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories, whether they're good or bad.

The exception is that if you belong to the academic chattering classes --- the literary experts who tell other people to avoid adjectives --- the frequency goes up to over 8% in your academic prose. As in so many other domains, the very people who tell you not to are doing it more than you are. As Bertold Brecht put it:

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

Those who lard their prose with juicy, slobbering, adjectival modifiers, he might have added, write stupid little books like The Elements of Style that tell you not to. The second word in Roger Angell's Foreword to the 4th edition of Strunk and White is an attributive adjective. In E. B. White's introduction to the book, the 6th word is an attributive adjective and there is another in the 4th line and so it goes on. The first two chapters of the main part of the book both have titles that begin with an attributive adjective. There is one in the first line of the text of the first chapter. I won't go on. Just take your copy of that vile little work with its absurd advice ("Use the active voice"; "Omit needless words"; "Be clear" --- all of them, notice, phrased with adjectives) and drop it in the wastebin.

Bibliographical credits

Quantitative data source: Douglas Biber et al., The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (London: Longman, 2002), p. 506.

Crappy usage advice: William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th edition (New York: Allyn and Bacon, 2000), with a foreword by Roger Angell.

Article by Ben Yagoda: The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 20, 2004.

Adjectives by Webster's Third New International Dictionary. All adjectives driven by professionals on a closed course; do not try this at home.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 18, 2004 02:07 PM