February 18, 2005

E.B. White: now with 60% more adjectives

In Geoff Pullum's first Language Log post on adjective use, he quoted Doug Biber's finding that about 6% of the words in English prose will be adjectives "whether you write novels or news stories, whether they're good or bad", with "academic prose" rising to an average of about 8% adjectives.

Since then, we've documented instances of fine writing at adjective rates of 15% and even 40%. Still, E.B. White's own adjective content of 13% is apparently more than double the English prose average, and about 60% higher than typical academic texts. [Update: Geoff points out to me that I read his post carelessly, and was therefore unfair to White: the 13% count includes adverbs as well as adjectives, and his adjective proportion is merely 8%, or about the same as typical academic prose. I therefore apologize to White's memory, and to any readers who have been misled. I think, though, that the basic point stands: White uses modifiers at a similar rate to everyone else.]

Does this mean that Strunk and White invented their anti-adjective animus out of free-floating intellectual crankiness, with no connection at all to the stylistic properties of actual texts? It's possible. However, an investigation of menu sociolinguistics led me last summer to another hypothesis: "the impulse to pile up fancy words and extra modifiers, and the admonition to write simply and avoid adjectives, are both expressions of the same social anxieties, seen from slightly different places on the social scale". On this view, Strunk and White's little book is not a manual of prose style, it's a self-help book for social climbers.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 18, 2005 07:58 AM