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Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Pullum on Brecht

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.)

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
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
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.
It's interesting, because I've found that Borges uses probably much more than the 6 or 8 percent that Pullum mentions.


Vance Maverick said...

I should have waited till this post to put up my maximally-charitable interpretation of what these peevers are trying to do. I think they're trying to help you avoid the fault of prolixity. The problem, of course, is that there's no objective definition of prolixity. Adjectives and adverbs can sometimes be excised from a sentence without completely destroying it, so people have fixed on cutting them as a superstitious equivalent.

Vance Maverick said...

I think where I'm heading is a classification of prose qualities like (what little I remember of) virtues in Aristotelian ethics. Prolixity and terseness are vices of excess and deficiency respectively, to which the corresponding virtue of the mean is -- what to call it?

Jonathan said...

Sure, it's all about the quantity of information on the page and the rate of informational redundancy. You want to be concise, of course, and the descriptive adjective looks like the easiest thing to get rid of. There's a kind of puritan impulse there, though also found in the Spanish speaking world: "el adjetivo, cuando no da vida, mata."

Anonymous said...

I found that book in my parents' bookshelf when I was very young and read the whole thing. I think it influenced me and I would bet I do not use many adjectives.