May 13, 2004

Writing without adjectives

With regard to whether one could write English without ever using an adjective (since we've seen examples of writing with no verbs and with no nouns and with no prepositions ), we are of course told by some that writing of quality never uses adjectives at all: "sages of writing" are alleged to agree that adjectives are to be avoided completely by writers of taste and discernment (I discussed this topic here). The sages who do say such things, if there are such sages, are nutballs. They should be drummed out of the grammar service, stripped of their sagehood. It is an absurdity to suggest that writing fails in some way when adjectives are permitted.

On the issue of identifying adjectives, however, I need to offer a word or two of guidance.

Here the analysis of The Cambridge Grammar facilitates things a little. There is a tradition in the grammar scholarship of the period 1500-2000 of equating the notion "adjective" with the function of qualifying the meaning of a noun. Take, for instance, the phrase I just used in the sentence that precedes this one: "grammar scholarship". Since "grammar" qualifies the meaning of "scholarship" there, as the tradition has it, "grammar" must be an adjective. The Cambridge Grammar rejects that tradition. It claims that grammar is a noun. Always a noun. But nouns can be used as modifiers of nouns. That is, they can be used attributively. It doesn't make them adjectives, any more than using an axe to hammer in a nail makes the axe a hammer.

Likewise, words such as "this" are not adjectives. Certainly, in "this book", the word "this" occurs before a noun and contributes something (perhaps a qualification) to the meaning of the noun phrase. But "this" is a determinative, not an adjective, and it functions as a determiner in cases of the sort in question, it doesn't function attributively. Likewise with some: it's a determinative. Pronouns such as my are not adjectives either; they are pronouns, genitively inflected, functioning as determiners.

Notice also that there are (at least in styles of U.S. English that bear the hallmarks of informality) adverbs derived from adjective bases by zero derivation. Examples include both the last two words in They beat him up real good (see Arnold Zwicky's post here). They're both adverbs. And this post isn't trying to avoid adverbs, it's trying to avoid adjectives. Looks like it managed it, too -- provided we take "like" to be a preposition, not an adjective taking a noun phrase complement.

[Thanks to Daniel Currie Hall for helping me to get the errors out of my drafts.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 13, 2004 03:34 PM