BRENDA LOOPER: On the hunt

Brenda Looper

Those who know me well know that I can get a bit exercised when I'm editing. Maybe it's the two spaces some people put between sentences, or the space they put before punctuation (Why????). Or maybe it's the random capitalizations or letters typed in all-caps (or just random words in all-caps).

Or maybe it's the overuse of adjectives and redundant phrases.

You'll notice my writing isn't exactly what you'd call literary; I tend toward spare writing that shows rather than tells. The one time I wrote something florid was when I was in junior high, and it was my least favorite thing I'd ever written despite the teacher loving it. While I'm not against adjectives, I realize that an excess can cloud meaning. As with most things, moderation is key.

Some writers subscribe to a theory attributed to Mark Twain: When you catch an adjective, kill it. That comes from a letter written in March 1880 to D.W. Bowser of Dallas, at the time a student; it remained unreleased until December 1939, not long after Bowser died:

"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English--it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."

That part about killing most adjectives because it will make the rest more valuable reminds me a bit of Syndrome's threat in The Incredibles to sell his "superhero" inventions after he retired so everyone could be super, because "when everyone's super, no one will be." It also reminds me of the folly of giving everyone a trophy in competition, but that's another column.

While I admire those who excel at literary writing, I know that most of us don't do it well, and when we attempt such things, a lot of us are ashamed of the wasted efforts (the others still think it's wonderful).

Many times when I edit letters or columns and need to trim them for the page, redundancy and adjective overload are cut first, as they rarely affect the substance of the letter (cue outcry from those who believe their every word is precious). Sure, so-and-so ticked you off, but you don't need to say it repeatedly, just using slightly different words. And don't say that someone is angry and irate; they mean basically the same thing, so pick one (I'd go with the more descriptive "irate").

But you really needn't pull out the thesaurus to pack in every adjective you find (especially under the same entry). An overcast sky is a gray sky; there's no reason to use both descriptions. The adjective "unique" is just that; there are no levels, so no need to add an intensifying modifier with it.

In a sentence, the noun and verb should carry the bulk of the labor; piling on too many modifiers will gum up the works and make the reader struggle to make it through. Instead, use more precise nouns and verbs (i.e., "giant" instead of "large man," and "slogged" rather than "walked slowly and laboriously"); it will negate the need for most modifiers.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't use adjectives, or adverbs either. Just be more judicious.

Ben Yagoda, a freelance writer and retired professor of journalism and English at the University of Delaware, wrote a 2007 book about adjectives and other parts of speech, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. (I have a copy somewhere, but it's hiding from me at the moment, perhaps afraid I might kill it. Maybe it's because Yagoda appears to disagree with me on "unique." Come out, little book, I won't hurt you.)

In a New York Times excerpt when the book came out, Yagoda noted that adjectives don't get a lot of respect. "The root of the problem," he wrote, "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 $17 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."

While that may add words in a tight space, the words will be more powerful and readable.

Adjectives are important, especially when you're trying to convey a sense of place. Some writers excel at clever use of adjectives. It's the ones who don't, who abuse them to draw attention to themselves, that ruin adjectives for everyone.

Once again, this is why we can't have nice things.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at [email protected].

Editorial on 05/06/2020