Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Adjectives and adjectives

Here's another tantalizing preview from the upcoming grammar smash, "Strunk & Pullum's Real Good Guide To Writing." Everyone will want his or her their own copy!

Adjectives. You cannot write without adjectives, so don't try. The only sillier thing than deciding Adjectives Are Bad is deciding Adjectives Are Rhetorically Interchangeable. You barking loony.

Their point, at least from the editor's perspective, is that "don't use adjectives" is a misreading of a fairly sound principle for any sort of informative writing about the empirical world: Don't offer opinions (a) about stuff you aren't suited to judge (b) in venues where they aren't appropriate (c) before you finish the results section and get to the discussion (or take up writing for the editorial page, whichever).

Adjectives are indispensable because they limit, explain and define nouns. You can't write news without them, unless you think you can write about troops fighting guerrillas without saying which troops and which guerrillas. But like lots of other goodies in the journalistic toolbox, they can also work along a parallel channel: telling readers how they ought to feel. That's what the local fishwrap seems to be up to in the frontpage gems shown above. "Cushy Texas town" and "ritzy Texas city"* are interchangeable concepts because "cushy" and "ritzy" aren't there to explain or define. Their purpose is to remind you that the paper's on your side, lookin' out for you by makin' sure you know dirtbags are still engaging in general dirtbaggery. Also. And "fancy new lawyer"** sounds like a line from a particularly threadbare Western: Mighty fancy new lawyer you got there, stranger. Where'd you say you was from?

Nouns, obviously, can do the same thing. That's why Freep heds never pass up a chance to call the police "cops" or the ex-mayor's friends "pals" (and, more generally, why the use of "terrorist" is more likely to be determined by who is attacked, rather than the characteristics of the attack itself). But nobody rises up to call for a ban on nouns in the way that people go off on the poor old adjective.*** What that suggests is that journalists might be looking in the wrong place. Don't ban parts of speech. Ban irrelevant yanking on the attitudinal chain.

* If we can steal another phrase from John McIntyre, the kinder, gentler Sage II of Baltimore: A reporter with a thesaurus is sort of like a toddler with a handgun.
** In print, it's "Fancy new lawyer's/role not clear yet," in case you thought the apocalypse was somehow farther away than it is.
*** Strunk & White didn't do that, and people who think they did should, um, RTFB.

Labels: ,


Blogger John McIntyre said...

You might get some pushback (See, I can use vogue terms, too) on those adjectives "kinder" and "gentler."

9:04 AM, February 05, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home