April 01, 2004

Alistair and the adjective

I thought the world of Alistair Cooke, of course, and mourn his recent passing (he was 95, but hardly seemed it). I've done a few 13-minute radio essays myself, for ABC Radio National in Australia, and believe me, they're not as easy as Alistair always, right up to the end, made them sound. I've broadcasted 7; he managed 2,869 in all. Doing one a week for 58 years to any quality level at all would have been an astonishing feat. But his were usually good ones. He was a fine writer and a great broadcasting institution. I doubt that we shall see his like again.

But even he was not reliable when asked about his writing process. He is reported in the New York Times obituary to have said not long ago that when he had drafted a script he would then "beat the hell out of it, getting rid of all the adverbs, all the adjectives, all the hackneyed words." There has been earlier discussion on Language Log about the myth that you should avoid adjectives. The notion that prose would be better without them, or without adverbs, has been described as totally nuts. And the notion that there are hackneyed words doesn't make much sense either (is the a hackneyed word?).

Alistair Cooke didn't, of course, do to his prose what he said he did. Like most writers, he is to be appreciated for his work, not questioned on the topic of his creative process. He certainly didn't manage half a century of weekly radio talks on a diet of no adverbs, no adjectives, and no clichés.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 1, 2004 01:59 AM