Sunday, December 07, 2008

Death to all modifiers, he declared one day

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Tongan marines left with a song, their vowel-rich war choruses echoing in the marble halls of a palace built for Saddam Hussein but now occupied by the U.S. military.

Raising only a few questions: What would a vowel-deprived war chorus sound like? ("From the halls of Brno and Plzen" doesn't seem likely to fit the meter.) Are Iraqi children who grew up vowel-poor, with just the occasional diphthong for Sunday dinner, going to remember the generous Tongans wistfully in decades to come? Where does "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" fit on the war-chorus-vowel scale? How come you can write "humuhumunukunukuapuaa" using just the vowels available in standard Arabic and still have vowels left over?

Sounds like it's time to propose another small set of confidence-building measures in the Strunk and White Wars. The Adjective/Adverb Working Group suggests these propositions:

1) Some adjectives are really good
2) Some adjectives are really awful
3) Learning how to Write Good is a difficult process that, in part, involves learning to make that distinction and others like it

The S&W-bashers have no end of fun over the years noting that Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" is better at prescribing rules than at following its own -- particularly in the case of modifiers. Geoff Pullum puts it eloquently:

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.

Or, more broadly, you don't get good writing by the rote application of "rules" to bad writing -- especially if you don't understand that concepts like "use the active voice" are really good in some cases, OK in others (as long as fear-of-passive isn't distracting you from bigger problems) and genuinely stupid in yet others. Trouble is, it's stretching a point to call this a rule: It's listed, along with "write with nouns and verbs," under S&W's "suggestions and cautionary hints." And it borders on egregious decontextualizing to find a "prohibition on the use of adjectives and adverbs" in a paragraph that calls them "indispensable parts of speech."

Now that both sides can agree that adjectives are right handy little tools sometimes, let's look at the flip side: the uncounted zillions of adjectives that would have been better left in the dictionary than drawn into some writer's attempt to sound writerly.

How do they go wrong? The general category exemplified by "vowel-rich war choruses" is one way, and it's the kind we'd like to expect an amen from the Language Log gang on: I'm not quite sure what I need to say, but that stuff sounds weird, so I'll call it something pseudo-linguistic, whether the result means anything or not.

Here's another (just to rein things in, let's stay within the A section of a major metropolitan newspaper): The as-opposed-to adjective, meant to make a newspaper sound like something friendly from third grade or EyeWitnessActionNews5.

Inside, stinky manure from 3,500 cows and 9,400 pigs is being fermented and turned into electricity. ... The manure is pumped into large insulated tanks, where it's heated to the ideal temperature for tiny bacteria in it to work on producing methane gas.

Or the belief that the way to distinguish a feature story from a news story is to put an adjective in front of any noun that looks lonesome:

The round metal building with its green dome looks only slightly out of place next to barns full of mooing cows. It takes up about a third of an acre, inconspicuous on the sprawling Scenic View Dairy farm, surrounded by dirt roads and acres of tasseled corn.

"Green" has a lot of merit as an adjective ("dude, is bacon supposed to be green before you cook it?"), but it isn't very exciting when it comes to describing domes. "Mooing" is kind of the normal condition of cows; you really want something like "invisible" or "Uzi-wielding" if you're going to modify cows in some way that makes the reader sit up and take notice. And "tasseled" -- look, I'm still sort of new here, but it started snowing last month. Do you guys normally have tasseled corn in the fields the first week of December?

Here's another category, perhaps closer to what S&W had in mind, under the hed "Surgeon's inspiring tale shot in Detroit":

His remarkable story is the subject of the new movie "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," shot in metro Detroit in recent weeks.

"Inspiring" and "remarkable" aren't there to limit or explain or specify or do the other important things adjectives do. They're there to tell you how to feel, but they don't suggest much effort on the writer's side -- hence the age-old "Don't tell me, show me" of city desks and writing classes.

Strunk and White seem to be getting at exactly what they're getting at: Don't use random modifiers to get out of the work of writing. If you pick a wrong noun, don't expect to fix it with an adjective. Those aren't shortcuts to the sort of good writing* Pullum describes, but the Adjective-Adverb Working Group would like to think we can still admit them to the list of Stuff Writers Ought To Know About.

* For the record, the Log in general has some of the best day-to-day writing I run across. And we have a fun parlor trick for editing class tomorrow: Which scores higher on the Flesch-Kincaid reading level test, Arnold Zwicky explaining distributed vs. narrow readings of adjectives or the AP describing a tornado?

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