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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

If you catch an adjective, kill it

Clemens was also anti-adjectival, in theory, but:

While Tom was eating his supper, and stealing sugar as opportunity offered, Aunt Polly asked him questions that were full of guile, and very deep—for she wanted to trap him into damaging revealments. Like many other simple-hearted souls, it was her pet vanity to believe she was endowed with a talent for dark and mysterious diplomacy, and she loved to contemplate her most transparent devices as marvels of low cunning. Said she:
"Tom, it was middling warm in school, warn't it?"
"Powerful warm, warn't it?"
"Didn't you want to go in a-swimming, Tom?"
A bit of a scare shot through Tom—a touch of uncomfortable suspicion. He searched Aunt Polly's face, but it told him nothing. So he said:
"No'm—well, not very much."
The old lady reached out her hand and felt Tom's shirt, and said:
"But you ain't too warm now, though." And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind. But in spite of her, Tom knew where the wind lay, now. So he forestalled what might be the next move:
"Some of us pumped on our heads—mine's damp yet. See?"
Aunt Polly was vexed to think she had overlooked that bit of circumstantial evidence, and missed a trick. Then she had a new inspiration:
"Tom, you didn't have to undo your shirt collar where I sewed it, to pump on your head, did you? Unbutton your jacket!"
The trouble vanished out of Tom's face. He opened his jacket. His shirt collar was securely sewed.
"Bother! Well, go 'long with you. I'd made sure you'd played hookey and been a-swimming. But I forgive ye, Tom. I reckon you're a kind of a singed cat, as the saying is—better'n you look. This time."
She was half sorry her sagacity had miscarried, and half glad that Tom had stumbled into obedient conduct for once.

Here are about twenty-five, not counting ones used as adverbs like "powerful" or "middling." If you really found a sparing use of adjectives in any writer then you would find maybe whole paragraphs or even long sentences without them. If you count all adverbs too you notice that Twain is making modifiers do some heavy lifting.


Vance Maverick said...

Nit in headline -- "an" adjective.

Is it possible to tell how serious Twain was? I think the null hypothesis should be that this was a one-liner. Which wouldn't be received as funny, of course, if the proposition were completely alien, but can't I think be taken as seriously as the "claim" of your unnamed scholars.

Jonathan said...

What I object to is not so much Twain, as those who quote him to that effect. By repeating his advice they are, in a sense, accepting an implicit claim that has no support. I am reminded of Pullum pointing out that E.B. White used adjectives at a greater rate in his own prose, despite the famous Strunk and White dictum that you should write with nouns and verbs.

Vance Maverick said...

I sometimes respond to such peevery by perversely striving to find, against all odds, a charitable interpretation. Here perhaps it's that prolixity is a genuine fault, and extra adjectives can sometimes be the most visible excess.

Think of it from a transformational point of view: if you're given a sentence in English or related languages, and told to make it more prolix, the very easiest way is by sticking in more adjectives and adverbs. (Adding nouns and verbs will probably require adding conjunctions and other complexity.) So "take out adverbs and adjectives" is a lazy but plausible prescription.

Of all the problems with this approach, the biggest might be that it's hard to actually know whether a passage is prolix. Good prose does contain words that are not literally necessary. With respect to Bunting, "Cut out every word you dare" is not apt for most poetry, let alone most prose. (And even that leaves wiggle room in "dare".)