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When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It

The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda
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What do you get when you mix nine parts of speech, one great writer, and generous dashes of insight, humor, and irreverence? One phenomenally entertaining language book.

In his waggish yet authoritative book, Ben Yagoda has managed to undo the dark work of legions of English teachers and libraries of dusty grammar texts. Not since School House Rock have adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, interjections, nouns, prepositions, pronouns, and verbs been explored with such infectious exuberance. Read If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and:

Learn how to write better with classic advice from writers such as Mark Twain (“If you catch an adjective, kill it”), Stephen King (“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”), and Gertrude Stein (“Nouns . . . are completely not interesting”).

Marvel at how a single word can shift from adverb (“I did okay”), to adjective (“It was an okay movie”), to interjection (“Okay!”), to noun (“I gave my okay”), to verb (“Who okayed this?”), depending on its use.

Avoid the pretentious preposition at, a favorite of real estate developers (e.g., “The Shoppes at White Plains”).

Laugh when Yagoda says he “shall call anyone a dork to the end of his days” who insists on maintaining the distinction between shall and will.

Read, and discover a book whose pop culture references, humorous asides, and bracing doses of discernment and common sense convey Yagoda’s unique sense of the “beauty, the joy, the artistry, and the fun of language.”
Crown/Archetype; February 2008
272 pages; ISBN 9780767929318
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It
Author: Ben Yagoda


Look to the adjectives.
Virgil Thomson

Kicking things off with adjectives is a little like starting a kids’ birthday party with the broccoli course. Because as far as not getting respect goes, adjectives leave Rodney Dangerfield in the dust. They rank right up there with Osama bin Laden, Geraldo Rivera, and the customer–service policies of cable TV companies. That it is good to avoid them is one of the few points on which the sages of writing agree. Thus Voltaire: “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” Thus William Zinsser: “Most adjectives are…unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”

And thus the title of this book, a piece of advice traditionally attributed to Mark Twain.

Even the ancient Greeks seem to have been dismissive of the adjective; their term for it was epitheto, meaning “something thrown on.” In Latin, as previously noted, there are no adjectives, and such was the influence of that ancient language that the earlier English grammarians categorized these words as a subset of nouns. In 1735, John Collyer sensibly objected:

Words that signify the Quality of the Thing, cannot come under the same Denomination with those that signify the Name of the Thing; And seeing the Adverb, which signifies the Manner of the Verb is made a distinct Part of Speech, why should not the Adjective be so too, since it bears at least the same relation to the Noun, as that doth the Verb?

His reasoning could not really be disputed, and not long afterward the adjective became a full-fledged part of speech. The situation is not quite as simple as Collyer made it out, however. For one thing, “words that signify the Quality of the Thing,” as he puts it, come from a lot of different sources. There are not only the run–of–the–mill adjectives like good, bad, and ugly, but also various verb forms (a driving rain, a decorated cake); words created from suffixes like –ific, ive, ous, ful, less, and –ic; words that do double duty as nouns and adjectives (green); both cardinal (two) and ordinal (second) numbers; determiners or possessive pronouns like the, those, and my; hyphenated adjective phrases such as highquality; and so–called attributive nouns, such as the first word in the phrases company man, wedding cake, and motel room.

Not all of these make the grade as full–fledged adjectives. One fairly reliable test is whether a word can be modified by an adverb—for example, very, almost, or absolutely. Colors certainly qualify and numbers are usually seen as doing so as well; we could say, “Susie is almost three.” But the, those, my, company, wedding, and motel (in the above examples) are not adjectives, despite the fact that they modify or describe nouns. Some words edge their way into the class over time, at which point they are looked down on by usage commentators. A classic example is fun, which started out as an attributive noun, in such phrases as fun house (in the circus) and Mayor John Lindsay’s much–mocked description of New York, Fun City. Fun was not a quality of the house or the city; the idea, rather, was that in these places one had fun (a noun). In the years since then, fun has stepped out into the footlights as an adjective, sparingly at first and now robustly. So you see and hear it modified by very and so, and used in comparative form as funner and funnest. (Key is traveling a similar road.) Journalist Barbara Wallraff quoted Steven Pinker as saying that he “can tell whether people are over thirty years old or under by whether they’re willing to accept fun as a full–fledged adjective.” I’m well over thirty but have no objection to fun being used this way, at least in speech. After all, the only alternative for “That was a really fun trip” is “That was a really enjoyable trip,” which is the kind of thing Eddie Haskell would say.

But, to reiterate, I am not one of those whatever–is–is–right loose constructionists; some new adjectives make me Sad to Be Alive. When someone says, “That’s very cliché,” my reaction is "That’s very icky.” Clichéd is a perfectly good adjective that was already in the dictionary. Equally grating is the shortening of the phrasal adjective high-quality to just plain quality, as in “He’s a quality individual.” Unfortunately, the trend is clearly going the other way: a Yahoo search for the phrase a quality individual yields more than 15,200 hits.

While we’re on the subject of Pinker’s “language mavens,” here’s their number one adjective–related complaint: the use of comparative or intensifying modifiers with supposedly “absolute” adjectives. The poster child here is unique. How would grammar geeks and English teachers spend their time if they were prohibited from tsk–tsking at more unique and very unique, or explaining that since unique means one–of-a–kind, there can be no degrees of uniqueness? But the mavens’ kvetching on this point won’t wash. The OED notes that since the nineteenth century, unique “has been in very common use, with a tendency to take the wider meaning of ‘uncommon, unusual, remarkable.’” The dictionary quotes Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows: “ ‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, ‘is an eligible self–contained gentleman’s residence, very unique.’” Other absolutes can profitably be modified as well. Orwell expressed his point perfectly when he wrote in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And the framers of the U.S. Constitution knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

There are two main kinds of adjectives: attributive ones normally come right before the noun they qualify, while predicative adjectives come after to be or similar verbs such as become and seem. Most adjectives can serve either purpose: we can speak of a “happy family” and say “the family appeared happy.” But some work only one way. Take the sentence “Clergymen are answerable to a higher authority.” Answerable is exclusively a predicative; you could not refer to an “answerable clergyman.” And higher is strictly attributive; you wouldn’t normally say, “The authority is higher.”

Attributive adjectives sometimes follow the model of French and come after the noun, as when we refer to accounts payable, something important, proof positive, matters philosophical, paradise lost, a battle royal, the heir apparent, stage left, time immemorial, or a Miller Lite. And predicative adjectives appear before the noun when used appositively: “Tall, dark, and homely, he is a natural choice to play the part of Abraham Lincoln.”

That brings up another wrinkle. Attributive and predicative adjectives can both be listed in a series, but they behave in different ways. In normal usage, predicative ones are separated by a comma and the last item is preceded by a conjunction, usually and, but, or, or yet: for example, in the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black or in the lyric “Three cheers for the red, white, and blue.” Attributive lists can conclude with a conjunction (“The stuffed, stamped, and sealed envelopes go on the table”) or not (“The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”; “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan”—the first four words of Ulysses). The comma issue opens a can of worms. Some people have an instinctive sense of it. They are the lucky ones. The logic behind the usage, basically, is that if adjectives qualify a noun in the same way, and if their order can be changed without doing any damage to the sentence, they should be separated by commas: “We had to cross a wide, rough, freezing river.” On the other hand, you don’t put commas between adjectives that modify each other or before ones that are part a noun phrase: “We stayed at a luxurious seaside motel”; “He is the second happy married enlisted man I’ve talked to today.” Sometimes there’s a mix: “Tiger Woods was the first righthanded [comma] brown–eyed [no comma] American golfer to win the tournament.” (*) The trusty trick you might remember from junior high school still works: if inserting an and between any pair of adjectives in the series sounds okay, use a comma. If not, don’t.

Now you know what adjectives are, but you may still be wondering why so many people bash them. These words are clearly necessary in order to communicate many thoughts and ideas: how could we make our way in the world without saying things like the “other cup,” an “old man,” the “green door,” the “last day,” etc., etc.? Moreover, adjectives aren’t really used that much—they account for only about 6 percent of all words in the British National Corpus, a 100–million–word collection of samples of written and spoken language. The root of the problem is lazy writers’ inordinate fondness for this part of speech. They start hurling the epithets when they haven’t provided enough data—specific nouns and active verbs—to get their idea across. It’s easy—too easy—to describe a woman as “beautiful.” It takes more heavy verbal lifting, but is more effective, to point out that the jaw of every male in the room dropped when she walked in. And establishing that someone kicked an opponent who was down, stole seventeen dollars from a Salvation Army collection kettle, and lied to partners about having sexually transmitted diseases precludes the need to call him terrible, awful, horrible, horrid, deplorable, despicable, or vile.

Describing nature may be writers’ toughest challenge—and many face it by stacking up the attributive adjectives, with a sprinkling of adverbs. An adherence to this formula may in fact be the most reliable sign of bad poetry: each line seems like an unfunny game of Mad-Libs. “The ___ snow fell __ on the __  ground as the __ children played __ .”

Generally speaking, it’s the attributive adjectives that are abused; the predicative ones, coming after a verb, tend to encourage more thought and selectivity. Certainly, attributive adjectives are a feature of cliches and catchphrases. Have you recently heard of a bystander who wasn’t innocent, a lining that wasn’t silver, or a break that wasn’t lucky? This isn’t a new thing, either. In his 1930 book Adjectivesand Other Words, Ernest Weekley noted that after an assassination attempt on Mussolini, “the President of the Irish Free State congratulated him on ‘providential escape’ from ‘odious attack,’ sent his ‘earnest wishes’ for a ‘speedy recovery’ from the ‘infamous attempt’ that had caused ‘utmost indignation,’ etc.” “There are people,” Weekley observed, “who seem to think that a noun unaccompanied by an adjective has no real signification.” A line of journalism quoted by Fowler in Modern English Usage—“The operation needs considerable skill and should be performed with proper care”—illustrates the point. The adjectives considerable and proper not only are unnecessary; they actually weaken the writer’s point. Yet one can understand the impulse to put them in, for it has been felt by all of us.

Finally, when writers commit the sin of showing off—of being flowery or obscure for no reason other than to call attention to themselves—more often than not the tools of the crime are NOAs (needlessly obscure adjectives). There is no reason to use rebarbative instead of unpleasant, annoying, or some other familiar negative epithet, other than to be fancy. (A glossary at the end of the chapter defines rebarbative and all the other unfamiliar adjectives mentioned.) T. S. Eliot made a fetish of using long–dormant adjectives like defunctive, anfractuous, and polyphiloprogenetive; he apparently felt piacular (meaning something done or offered in order to make up for a sin or sacrilegious action) was too run–of–the– mill, so he made up a new form: piaculative. Senator Robert Byrd is justly snickered at for saying things like “maledicent language” and “contumelious lip.” Gore Vidal has been accused of excessive fondness for words like mephitic and riparian. In just one essay, James Fenton writes, “The element of the aleatoric may well be genuinely present,” and refers to “proleptic writers such as Ibsen and Strindberg” and to a “hieratic figure somewhat reminiscent of Ernst.” That’s too proleptic for me.

The best use for this kind of adjective is comedy. In One Fat Englishman, Kingsley Amis’s narrator expresses surprise that the cast of characters in a young American’s novel does not include “paraplegic necrophiles, hippoerotic jockeys, exhibitionistic castrates, coprophagic pig–farmers, armless flagellationists and the rest of the bunch.” S. J. Perelman made a career out of formulations such as “the evening a young person from the Garrick Gaeities, in a corybantic mood, swung into a cancan and executed a kick worthy of La Goulue.”

But some writers’ abuse of adjectives has led to the defamation of an entire part of speech. A resourceful and creative use of these words marks, more than any other single trait, a first–rate essayist or critic. It’s an indication of originality, wit, observation—the cast and quality of the writer’s mind. As Herbert Read writes in English Prose Style:

The necessity of epithets can be determined by a nice judgment, but to use them appropriately is to employ a more instinctive faculty. In simple cases there is no choice: the meaning to be expressed demands one epithet and no other. But in other cases an unusual epithet must be sought to express a subtlety of feeling…The free use of epithets is a characteristic of a mature literature, of highly developed civilizations and analytical minds.

I agree—so strongly that I’ll admit, at the risk of being called a trainspotter, that I have been collecting outstanding or notable examples of adjective use for close to two decades. What can I tell you? It floats my boat. A recent addition to my thick file is a sentence from an op–ed piece the novelist William Boyd wrote for the New York Times. Talking of French TV weather people’s dour forecasts about the hot summer, he wrote, “The tone is minatory and worrying, and very infectious.” Worrying and infectious are good, but what made me clip the quote was minatory, which I found defined in the dictionary as “menacing or threatening.” So why is it better than menacing or threatening? Well, the –ing ending of either would awkwardly echo worrying (itself a nice adj.), as well as incorrectly imply that the weathercasters themselves embodied a threat.

I didn’t mind looking up minatory in the dictionary. That book contains some really good adjectives whose meanings more familiar ones simply can’t get at. Simple words are fine for broad brushstrokes but often not adequate for the intricacies and fine points and nuances of human relationships, characteristics, and situations. Nor is it necessary to carry Websters with you at all times. When these words are deployed skillfully, a reader can often infer or at least guess at the meaning from the context. Here are some nice examples, from my files, of the unfamiliar adj.:

“In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country–fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof.” —Roger Angell on the gridwork at the new baseball stadium in Baltimore

“She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils.” —Sylvia Townsend Warner

“The Sunday’s events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant.” —John Updike

“He had the surface involvement—style—while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind.” —Nicholson Baker on Updike

“The great out–sticking ears that frame his face like cartilaginous quotation marks.” —Michael Kelly on Ross Perot

“Churchill is morally irrefrangible in American discourse, and can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln.” —Christopher Hitchens

“…the chordal quality of a man who is simultaneously overbearing and winning.” —Stanley Kauffmann

“… a fissiparous, splintered artifact.” —Alex Clark on Ali Smith's novel The Accidental

From the Hardcover edition.
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