February 10, 2007

If you could possibly do without them they must be banned

An assistant professor teaching theoretical syntax somewhere far away (names suppressed to protect the innocent) reports that her class had reached a point where they had collaboratively developed an explicit partial grammar for English which permits attributive adjectives to occur inside the part of the tree diagram of a sentence representing a noun phrase provided they are before the noun (as in those repulsive reptiles), but not after the noun (*those reptiles repulsive). She set the class an exercise: first explain why the grammar so far does not allow a sentence like Many people find reptiles repulsive (correct answer: because it provides no way to position an adjective after a noun), and then work out a way of modifying the grammar so that it will allow that sentence and others like it. And what one student wrote concerning the first part of the problem really took her aback:

Our phrase structure rules do not provide for adjectives in the tree, because they are not necessary parts of speech. You can get your point across, and understood without using adjectives.

What on earth is going on here? The answer to that, of course, lies in the vice-like grip of noxious and misguided little book of which the content was decided roughly a hundred years ago, a book full of recommendatory maxims that have been elevated into fascist edicts.

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" says E. B. White in the chapter he added in making the new 1957 edition of Strunk's odious booklet The Elements of Style, mostl of which was written some time before the First World War. Ridiculous advice, which nobody follows — not White himself, for example, as I pointed out in my earlier post "Those who take the adjectives from the table." Everybody uses adjectives. Anybody who wants to say they are not useful has a real problem: useful is an adjective, so how are they going to express the claim?

We have already seen something very closely related: the case of the student I met who had been told by a Los Angeles teacher of English that everything that is optional is forbidden: again the basis for this nonsense comes from Strunk and White (and from Strunk's original version, in fact): the "Omit needless words" mantra. The student quoted above appears to think that all adjectives are needless (you can get your point across without them) and that is why they are and ought to be, by Strunk's principles and not just White's, forbidden. For if adjectives are needless, then if you use them you must be using them too much, by a factor of infinity, and as Arnold Zwicky has pointed out, a guiding principle of prescriptivism seems to be that If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.

This poor student has apparently been told by some other professor to purchase Strunk and White (sometimes parents give their children copies of Strunk and White to take off to college, a practice I believe constitutes child abuse), and she has read it, and has believed the things it says.

Moreover, she has apparently mistaken the task of a grammar of English to provide only the resources that are minimally adequate for getting a point across. That is not the function of grammar. The grammar of English does not limit you to tight little clauses with no useless words like Hemingway is widely reputed to have specialized in (not that I have any idea what the frequency of adjectives in his prose might have been); it allows also for all the gloriously prolix prose of Oscar Wilde, the renownedly adjective-laden atmospheric description of the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft, the lengthy and gloriously convoluted sentences that Faulkner and Fitzgerald and sometimes Dickens used to write... All of it. Good or bad. With or without copious use of adjectives or adverbs. Grammar tells you how to put together sentences that are English in the manner of their construction. Then whether you write long and luxuriant or tight and snappy is up to you.

And let me just say to any students working on the second half of the problem mentioned above (how can Many people find reptiles repulsive be allowed as grammatical without allowing *Those reptiles repulsive are eating all my mice?) that the answer is that you need to see that not all adjectives are inside noun phrases. You need to modify the grammar to permit the verb find (and certain other verbs) to take two following complements: the first a noun phrase, and the second (not included within it) a predicative complement adjective phrase. Then you can account not only for Many people find [reptiles] [repulsive] but also for I find [your remarks] [insulting] and Napoleon found [the climate of St Helena] [somewhat depressing] and We find [the prisoner] [guilty of murder in the first degree], and indefinitely many others. That's the essence of the solution. Good luck with it — if you don't mind me using the adjective good.

[Thanks to John Cowan for some corrective observations.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 10, 2007 06:02 PM