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.)It's interesting, because I've found that Borges uses probably much more than the 6 or 8 percent that Pullum mentions.
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
Those for whom the taxes are destined
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.
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Pullum on Brecht