"Thought for the Day" is a four-minute reflective sermon delivered each morning on BBC Radio 4 at about ten to eight by some representative of one of the country's many religious faiths. On the first day of October the speaker was the Reverend Angela Tilby, Vicar of St Bene't's in Cambridge, England. (Bene't is an archaic shortened form of Benedict.) Developing a familiar theme from prescriptivist literature, she preached against adjectives. It was perhaps the most pathetic little piece of inspirational prattle I have ever heard from the BBC (read the whole misbegotten text here).
"Adjectives advertise," claims the Rev. Tilby, and "brighten up the prose of officialdom", but she was always "encouraged to be a bit suspicious" of them when she was a girl: "Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place" (as if the rules of syntax left everything else to do what it wanted!). This was good, she seems to think, because "For all their flamboyance they don't really tell you much." Adjectives "float free of concrete reality" like balloons, and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air." Which aptly describes her babbling thus far. But now, inflated with overconfidence, she risks some factual statements. And steps from the insubstantial froth of metaphor into the stodgy bullshit of unchecked empirical claims about language use.
I shall deal with only one such claim in this post. Another will be dealt with later.
Because adjectives are so airy-fairy, the Rev. Tilby holds, "you don't find many adjectives in scientific prose and when you do they are precise and exact." I'm sure that Language Log readers will realize instantly that it is time for what Mark Liberman calls a breakfast experiment.
Keep in mind, as I undertake the experiment, that in most kinds of English prose about 6% of the words are adjectives (see Douglas Biber et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, London: Longman, 2002, p. 506). In academic prose it's a little higher, around 8%.
I turned to the home page of what is arguably the most important general science journal in the world, Nature, picked the second article title from the top of the page ("Cheater resistance is not futile", by Anupama Khare, Lorenzo A. Santorelli, Joan E. Strassmann, David C. Queller, Adam Kuspa, and Gad Shaulsky, doi:10.1038/nature08472; it just looked somewhat more interesting to me than the first one), and did just a little bit of counting.
You'll notice that the last word of the title (futile) happens to be an adjective, so that's 20% in the title. The first word of the opening sentence of the abstract (cooperative) is also an adjective, and so is the second, and so is the 5th (that's over 15% so far). Here is the whole of the abstract, with the adjectives underlined (I've been very conservative, not counting many items that traditional grammars classify as adjectives: articles, demonstratives, numerals, other determinatives, genitive pronouns, or nouns functioning as attributive modifiers):
Cooperative social systems are susceptible to cheating by individuals that reap the benefits of cooperation without incurring the costs. There are various theoretical mechanisms for the repression of cheating and many have been tested experimentally. One possibility that has not been tested rigorously is the evolution of mutations that confer resistance to cheating. Here we show that the presence of a cheater in a population of randomly mutated social amoebae can select for cheater-resistance. Furthermore, we show that this cheater-resistance can be a noble strategy because the resister strain does not necessarily exploit other strains. Thus, the evolution of resisters may be instrumental in preserving cooperative behaviour in the face of cheating.
That's over 9% adjectives. A bad sample? I took the first paragraph of the text and did the same:
Dictyostelium cells propagate as unicellular amoebae in the soil. Upon starvation, they aggregate into multicellular structures and differentiate into viable spores and dead stalk cells. Stalk-cell differentiation supports spore maturation and dispersal, but this altruistic behaviour can be exploited by cheaters that make more than their fair share of spores in chimaeric fruiting bodies. The genetic potential for cheating is high and cheaters abound in nature, but cheating behaviour can be restrained by various mechanisms, such as intrinsic lower fitness of the cheater, pleiotropy of the cheater gene, high genetic relatedness in natural populations, and kin discrimination.
That's 16 adjectives in 97 words of that paragraph, or over 16%. In total, the title and abstract and opening paragraph of the first scientific paper that I picked — genuinely a random choice — are nearly 13% composed of adjectives, well over double the frequency that you find in most prose.
Now, I could check a few hundred more words, of course. But wait: why me? Why am I doing the work for her? What am I, an unpaid assistant curate of St. Bene't's? Did the Rev. Tilby do even as much elementary checking as I have done so far — glancing at a couple of hundred words in a random paper — before spouting her ridiculous remark? Of course not. Her method is a time-honored one in amateur writing on language: she just makes stuff up. On the basis of nothing but prejudice about science, she invented her data and went straight to the microphone with it.
Her suggestion that in science the adjectives are "precise" is further evidence of uninformed stereotyping. There's nothing precise about the meanings of words like cooperative, social, viable, altruistic, fair, lower, high, natural… These are vague terms, in the classic technical sense: there are clear cases for their application, and clear cases of what they should not be applied to, but also a border area where the appropriacy of applying them is in doubt.
There is of course nothing wrong with vague terms, with denotations partly set through common sense and reference to context; we use them literally every minute that we speak or write. Their logic and semantics can be studied with ruthless precision (see, for an example of the technical literature, Stewart Shapiro's lucid and masterful Vagueness in Context). Science is replete with them, and has to be. (Think of global warming, for heaven's sake: there's a truly vague concept. How warm? How global? Yet it's an important one, and serious science is being done every day to flesh it out and give it clearer content.)
It is merely one more sign of the the Rev. Tilby's contempt for truth, and cluelessness about science, that she thinks science is all precision. Scientists live their lives floating in a probabilistic soup of uncertainty and unclarity, murky associations and ill-defined tendencies, statistical degrees and extents.
Tilby sees herself as a minister of religion and thus a professional talker; and she therefore assumes (the crucial fallacy) that she is an expert on language; so she doesn't need to check a thing. As a vicar, she thinks she can go into the Radio 4 studio and simply invent her facts.
It is not that she lied; it is worse than that. It's not that Tilby knew what the facts about adjectives in scientific prose were, and stated untruths about them to mislead her audience: she simply didn't care whether she was uttering untruths or not. It wasn't lies; it was bullshit, in the sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. And as Frankfurt notes, the purveyor of bullshit is worse than a liar, in virtue of caring less about truth. The liar at least keeps track of what's true and recognizes its special status. That is precisely why it is "a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive": the committed liar tries to remain consistent. The bullshitter doesn't care even that much.