Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 2

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The Reverend Angela Tilby ended her scandalously unresearched little "Thought for the Day" talk of 1 October 2009 (part of which I have already discussed in this recent post) by suggesting that during the British political party conference season (i.e., right about now) we should try taking a blue pencil and editing out all the adjectives from the political speeches so that we could "see what is really being said about people, places, things, deeds and actions". She holds to the ancient nonsense about how nouns tell us the people, places, and things while verbs give us the deeds and actions but adjectives give us nothing but qualifications and hot air and spin — they contribute no content. And she is clearly implying that she (cynically) expects political speeches to be full of adjectives. But as before, she hasn't done any checking at all, she has just spouted her conjectures straight into the microphone. So let's try a second breakfast experiment, shall we?

I examined the first few paragraphs of the transcript of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's speech to the 2009 Labour Party Conference the other day (curiously, he seems to have begun with the coordinator and). Here is the first part of the text, with the adjectives underlined (and again, I am counting them very conservatively, ignoring many items that traditional grammars include under the adjective heading):

And so today, in the midst of events that are transforming our world, we meet united and determined to fight for the future.

Our country confronts the biggest choice for a generation. It's a choice between two parties, yes. But more importantly a choice between two directions for our country.

In the last 18 months we have had to confront the biggest economic choices the world has faced since the 1930s.

It was only a year ago that the world was looking over a precipice and Britain was in danger. I knew that unless I acted decisively and immediately, the recession could descend into a great depression with millions of people's jobs and homes and savings at risk.

And times of great challenge mean choices of great consequence, so let me share with you a little about the choices we are making.

The first choice was this: whether markets left to themselves could sort out the crisis; or whether governments had to act. Our choice was clear; we nationalised Northern Rock and took shares in British banks, and as a result not one British saver has lost a single penny. That was the change we chose. The change that benefits the hard working majority, not the privileged few.

And we faced a second big choice — between letting the recession run its course, or stimulating the economy back to growth. And we made our choice; help for small businesses, targeted tax cuts for millions and advancing our investment in roads, rail and education. That was the change we chose – change that benefits the hard working majority and not just a privileged few.

And then we had a third choice, between accepting unemployment as a price worth paying, or saving jobs. And we in Britain made our choice, it's meant half a million jobs saved. And so, Conference, even in today's recession there are 29 million people in work. 2 million more men and women providing for their families than in 1997.

That's 23 adjectives in 332 words, or 6.9 percent. Decisively less than the scientific paper analyzed earlier, and roughly the frequency one would expect from any ordinary text.

What the Rev. Tilby says is that we should try deleting all the adjectives, which is really absurd (though in fact it is exactly what Alistair Cooke seems to have thought, delusionally, that he used to do to all his radio scripts).

The self-appointed writing gurus who preach in these extreme terms against adjectival modification seem to forget that sometimes adjectives are there because they are crucial not only to the sense but to the structure. Delete the adjectives in this sentence of Brown's and you get a result that doesn't even seem grammatical, and certainly doesn't have anything like the truth conditions of the original. These two are not synonymous:

In the last 18 months we have had to confront the biggest economic choices the world has faced since the 1930s.
In the 18 months we have had to confront the economic choices the world has faced since the 1930s.

Another example, where the result is not even grammatical:

[T]he challenge of change demands nothing less than a new model for our economy, a new model for a more responsible society and a new model for a more accountable politics.
*The challenge of change demands nothing less than a model for our economy, a model for a more society and a model for a more politics.

To make any sense of the claim that such prose could be improved by removing adjectives one would have to propose completely removing all traces of the adjective phrases to which they belong. That would give us the following:

The challenge of change demands nothing less than a model for our economy, a model for a society and a model for a politics.

Why is the Rev. Tilby suggesting that we would understand his proposals better if he couldn't draw the distinction between models and new models, between societies and responsible societies, between politics and accountable politics?

Not that the Prime Minister would have been totally unable to convey his drift, of course. He could in principle have rephrased using only abstract nouns, thus completely avoiding the anti-adjective critique:

[T]he challenge of change demands nothing less than a model for our economy that has novelty, a model (with novelty) for a society that has responsibility to an extent exceeding the responsibility of society as it now exists and a model (with novelty) for a politics with a degree of accountability that exceeds the degree of accountability that politics has today.

Is the Rev. Tilby expecting us to believe that this is an improvement, bringing greater clarity? Has she completely lost her wits? Or did she simply not give any thought to what she was saying?

The notion that you can better see what is being said when the adjectives are removed is simply (yes, I do have to use an adjective here) asinine. Gordon Brown says at one point:

[T]hese are my values — the values I grew up with in an ordinary family in an ordinary town. Like most families on middle and modest incomes we believed in making the most of our talents.

Deleting the adjectives from it yields this:

These are my values — the values I grew up with in a family in a town. Like most families on incomes we believed in making the most of our talents.

What is the point of this ridiculous pretense that it would be a better political world if Brown were blocked from distinguishing ordinary families from unusually affluent ones, not allowed to draw the distinction between having an income and having a median-level income?

Here's why I bothered to write anything at all about a pathetic little 500-word radio sermon: I am so sick of seeing stupid writing advice handed out by pusillanimous pseudo-experts on language — dim-witted vicars like Angela Tilby, pontificating authoritarians like E. B. White in the chapter he added to The Elements of Style ("Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs"), and all the English teachers who have (while hypocritically using adjectives as much as they want in their own writing) poisoned the reputation of adjectives down the centuries (see the first chapter of Ben Yagoda's delightful little book on the parts of speech, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It).

These people are wasting educational time and effort, and helping to drive students into a state that I have written about before, characterized by "vague unease instead of a sense of mastery," and feeling "less sure of themselves, yet no better informed," so that their writing ability is "probably being harmed rather than enhanced" — in short, a state of nervous cluelessness about language.

Repeating the falsehood that adjectives are bad in general makes people less able to see what is wrong when they really are over-used. For a remark about the real lesson of Dan Brown's over-use of adjectives, with a diagnosis of what is wrong, see my piece "He doesn't trust us" on the New York Magazine site. There's a real point to be made, I think; but it's not about the adjective category per se.

Adjectives are neither good nor bad. The dumb usage pundits who recommend eschewing them totally are handing out advice that is at best exactly what Angela Tilby wrongly claims adjectives are (vapid, empty, and superfluous), and at worst clearly mistaken.

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33 Comments »

  1. Dierk said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:17 am

    Yip, as I always say and write, imagine a room full of people, a party. You are standing there with a bunch of guys talking the usual half-inebriated nonsense when you want to point out a particular female of which you do not have the name, but she is distinguished through her clothes:

    'Hey, look at that girl in the dress, legs, any idea who she is? '

    Unfortunately all of the women in the room wear dresses and have legs. Using your fingers for pointing is not just impolite and drawing attention to you in a bad way, it is unhelpful, too, since she is standing with some other girls at the other end of the room.

    Me, I would put in adjectives …

  2. Graeme said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:39 am

    Presumably she thinks adjectives and adverbs either equal hyperbole or are weaselly qualifiers. If so, it's an odd claim. The big lie is best told with directness, without nuance or colour.

    Slogans too. "Change we can believe in". Not an adjective in sight.

  3. Graeme said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    Actually, adjectivalisation can help. "Believable Change" would've been a snappier slogan.

  4. Franz Bebop said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    1 Corinthians 13, with all the adjectives removed.

    1 If I speak in ___ and ____ tongues but do not have love, I am a ____ gong or a ____ cymbal.
    2 And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend ___ mysteries and ___ knowledge; if I have ___ faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
    3 If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
    4 Love is ___, love is ___. It is not ___, love is not ____, it is not ____,
    5 it is not ____, it does not seek its own interests, it is not ____, it does not brood over injury,
    6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
    7 It bears ____ things, believes ____ things, hopes ____ things, endures ____ things.
    8 Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
    9 For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
    10 but when the ____ comes, the ____ will pass away.
    11 When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside ____ things.
    12 At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
    13 So faith, hope, love remain, these three ; but the ____ of these is love.

  5. Bob said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    It's also instructive to look at the Ministry of Justice Strategic Objectives page where she claims to have found most of those nasty little adjectives.
    (http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/strategic-objectives-indicators.htm)

    The examples that she lists for migration and communities don't seem to be there at all, the removal (from the title) of the adjectives she lists for criminal justice completely change the meaning and the two she mentions for civil and family justice (efficient and effective) are both present only in equivalent noun forms (efficiency and effectiveness).

    Clearly not one to let facts get in the way of a good opinion.

  6. Faldone said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:33 am

    1 Corinthians 13

    Twenty-two adjectives in 262 words; 8.4%

  7. Mr. B said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:41 am

    On behalf of English teachers everywhere, my sincerest apologies for those who have sullied our profession.

    But this does make me realize how lucky I was in my own degree program to have such a great background in writing theory (I hope it's comparable at major colleges and universities – I attended a small private arts university). The bigger problem, as I see it, is not just with a minor dictum like this (I say minor only because I'd never heard of it and am hoping that its impact is minimal) but with the trend toward hyper-stringent rules (Orwell's six rules at the end of "Politics and the English Language" come to mind).

    In my writing theory course, we read an article by Mike Rose on writer's block, where he makes a distinction between algorithms (stringent rules that are thought to provide a formula for good writing) and heuristics (general rules that are useful to follow but can be violated if necessary). Rose observed (and I tend to agree) that a lot of writers get stuck because they can't break out of the algorithmic thinking about their writing, either about process or about the details of their language (like grammar). So ultimately, as I see it, teachers of writing do their students a great disservice to give a lot of the "Never do this" sort of rules.

  8. Andy said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    I agree with your stance on adjectives, however she does have a somewhat valid point. While removing the adjectives from a regular sentence may leave it ungrammatical, simple rewording can make it readable again. [I do not understand this comment at all. Yes, where removing adjectives wrecks the grammaticality of the sentence, repairing it by rewriting is possible... What's the point here? —GKP] As for the Prime Minister's speech, some adjectives are less than helpful. "… times of great challenge …" comes to mind.

  9. Bill Walderman said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    Purging the adjectives from the Prime Minister's speech certainly doesn't make it any less vapid.

    However, it could be substantially improved by removing not only the adjectives, but also the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, determiners, conjunctions and prepositions.

  10. fiddler said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    @Graeme: Actually, adjectivalisation can help. "Believable Change" would've been a snappier slogan.

    Really? Are you serious about this? "Believable Change" and "Change we can believe in" mean two different things in my view. Also, the rhythm of the first falls flat, compared to the second.

  11. mgh said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    re: the higher incidence of adjectives in the Nature magazine article examined previously compared with the political speech presented today. It is interesting that the science writing sample had such a high adjective content. Thoughts on why this would be?

    My guess is that it's a result of the very restrictive word-number limits in Nature (and most scientific journals). Turning a phrase like "spores which can be germinated to give rise to additional generations" into "viable spores" saves a lot of room.

  12. Cirret said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    I suggest this is something like the "passive voice" nonsense. Tilby has observed that some adjectives are superfluous, flabby, question-begging, etc., and unwittingly refers to adjectives as a kind of incoherent metaphor for verbosity, without noticing that the literal meaning of what she says makes no sense at all.

  13. Ellie said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    Forgive my ignorance, but are numbers not adjectives, as in "a choice between two parties"?

    [Here's the answer, Ellie: in phrases like our three chief weapons or the two guitarists I think the best analysis would be that the numerals are determinatives functioning as attributive modifiers. (Attributive modifiers are often adjectives, but not always.) Because of this, I ignored the numerals. That's one of the reasons for saying that I really am giving a very conservative count of adjectives. —GKP]

  14. Ellie said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    Ah – Just saw your caveat in the previous post.

    You are very generous to grant her this courtesy, especially since she cited scientific papers as an example of adjective free writing.

  15. JES said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    I wonder if this is just ("just"?) a variation of the "generic plurals" problem, a/k/a statistical over-interpretation? She may have seen some similar exercise performed, on official or bureaucratic text of the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel variety, and thought Well, maybe adjectives really are as bad in general as I just saw demonstrated?

    Or maybe not.

  16. The other Mark P said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Why are adjectives bad, but adverbs get a free pass?

    Is this merely an omission or are they actually held to be better for you than adjectives?

    [They don't get any free pass. E. B. White insists you should write without either adjectives or adverbs. See quotes below. —GKP]

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    Mark P.: That's her next sermon.

    I wouldn't mind removing "great" from "great depression" and "single" from "single penny" in Gordon Brown's speech.

    Do British people normally address conferences as "Conference"? Or just some subset, such as politicians, or Labour politicians, or Brown?

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    It could have been a better speech if it were shorter, even if only by omitting words, but I suppose it wouldn't have fulfilled various other requirements as well, such as expressing his alpha status. Alphas talk longer because they can, making it what the biologists call a "reliable signal". I suppose that's what makes intolerable windbags like Quentin Tarantino and Joe Biden intolerable; they ape alpha status by talking forever, but fool nobody.

  19. Mark F said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

    Does this prejudice go back to the veneration of Hemingway? Or did Hemingway actually use a lot of adjectives, contrary to general supposition?

  20. George Amis said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    The Rev. Tilby's piece is obviously absurd, but to paraphrase Pope a little:

    Satire or sense, alas! can Tilby feel?
    Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?

  21. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    What Strunk & White actually say in The Elements of Style, 3rd edn, V, 4, is this:

    "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. . . . This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. . . . In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color."

    See also Gowers, rev. Fraser, The Complete Plain Words, chapter 6:

    "Cultivate the habit of reserving adjectives and adverbs to make your meaning more precise, and suspect those that you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. Use adjectives to denote kind rather than degree. By all means say an _economic crisis_ or a _military disaster_, but think well before saying an _acute crisis_ or a _terrible disaster_. Say if you like 'The proposal met with noisy opposition and and is in obvious danger of defeat'. But do not say 'The proposal met with considerable opposition and is in real danger of defeat'. If that is all you want to say it is better to leave out the adjectives and say 'The proposal met with opposition and is in danger of defeat'."

  22. Ellen said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    So, according to White, adjectives and adverbs are an indispensible part of speech, yet we shouldn't use them? Probably not what he means, but he doesn't say what he does mean (at least not in what's quoted here), leaving readers to guess.

    On the other hand, that quote from Gowers, rev. Fraser, The Complete Plain Words, chapter 6 has actual information and examples on what it thinks is good and bad. I don't agree with it, at least not as blanket advice for all writing, but at least it makes clear what it means.

  23. Mark F. said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 1:18 am

    Simon Cauchi — The way I read the quotes you cite, neither recommends eschewing adjectives entirely. (I think Ellen is reading White uncharitably. "Do A, not B" doesn't always mean "Never do B".)

    I think there are two things going on with this anti-adjective advice. The first is that it might prod people to try more different wordings. Assuming they have taste, they might then come up with something better. And the second is that it is tempting for beginning writers to "shout," although I guess I'm thinking more of adverb-overuse in this case. That's what Gowers/Fraser were getting at, I think.

  24. dw said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:10 am

    Here is more Tilby on adjectives:

    "When doing something like Thought for the Day, every word counts, you cannot afford to have superfluous adjectives, you cannot afford to have superfluous subordinate clauses and all the rest."

  25. Cecily said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:33 am

    Surely, it's all about context, and that is a distinction that style guides tend to make only passing reference to.

    I don't expect correspondence from my financial adviser to be littered with flowery adjectives and adverbs, and when I'm writing instructions for software, they only appear sparingly, whereas our marketing literature uses them liberally.

    However, if you omit them from fiction, some of the greatest literature would be horribly barren.

  26. Picky said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:05 am

    Ellen is being a little uncharitable, but I think she's right about his lack of clarity. White is giving the same sort of advice as Gowers, but makes a horrible unhelpful mess of it.

    As to Ms Tilby: she is an intelligent, educated, capable woman; a minister of religion; some say a priest of the Church Catholic. She is given this prominent spot on a leading radio programme – but she gives us blather. Many of the distinguished and sophisticated contributors to Thought for the Day patronise the listeners with blather. The problem is that this tiny sermon on two inches of ivory requires not just a good mind, but the right artistry, and few of the contributors possess it.

    As to addressing the conference as "Conference", that's part of Labour culture I don't think Blair did it, but Brown does it to show he's in touch with the party's historic roots.

  27. jo said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:08 am

    @Jerry Friedman:

    Do British people normally address conferences as "Conference"? Or just some subset, such as politicians, or Labour politicians, or Brown?

    As far as I know, addressing a conference audience as 'Conference' is usual practice in events like political party conferences, trade union conferences and so on. It certainly isn't unique to politicians, and I think that it is probably not related to political persuasion either.

  28. Graeme said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    Fiddler: I'm not American; and was partly teasing. But yes, 'Believable change' is a more credible slogan, and hence paradoxically suited to the anti-adjectivalists, than 'Change we can believe in'. The latter tries cutely to imply change that is both credible and yet inspiring, faithworthy. Such verbal promiscuity was achieved with a simple, adjective free phrase.

  29. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Cecily: "I don't expect correspondence from my financial adviser to be littered with flowery adjectives and adverbs, and when I'm writing instructions for software, they only appear sparingly, whereas our marketing literature uses them liberally."

    But Reverend Tilby is not talking about the kind of adjectives and adverbs to use, she's talking about the eradication (and/or avoidance) of all adjectives and adverbs. I'd certainly want my financial advisor to use adjectives to give me a clear and understandable picture of my financial situation.

    On the other hand, I'd be much happier if marketing literature were to use more clear and specific adjectives, rather than those of the flowery variety (save, of course, for marketing about florists).

  30. Cecily said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    @Eli I added the adjective "flowery" as an ironic tautology, when I really just meant adjectives in general. As I said in my preceding sentence, "it's all about context", and that's what the hardliners such as Tilby, Strunk and White etc tend to overlook.

  31. Fiona Hanington said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    Here are a couple of examples of recommending adjective aversion that I'm aware of:

    Stephen King (in On Writing, I think), said something like: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adjectives."

    Mark Twain said, "I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference…"

    [Note that Twain was unable to resist spelling out just what sort of indifference he was experiencing!]

  32. The effin' bear said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    For a remark about the real lesson of Dan Brown's over-use of adjectives, with a diagnosis of what is wrong, see my piece "He doesn't trust us" on the New York Magazine site. There's a real point to be made, I think; but it's not about the adjective category per se.

    I have seen some responses to the charge that DB's action sequences are written in the style of news articles, basically arguing that this aspect of his writing is not available to criticism because this is what DB intended all along. But if that's the case, then why all the adjectives (and DB's other trademark dramatic flourishes)? No newspaper editor would let such redundant adjectivery pass by their desk!

    Ignoring for a moment the adjectives, I don't think the idea that DB narrates in a convincing journalistic fashion is quite accurate. This Baltimore Sun article about a dramatic event involving a samurai sword has, in my opinion, superior narrative structure. Rather than shoving facts down the reader's throat in the first sentence, it waits until the second paragraph to reveal, for example, that this guy is an undergraduate JHU student. I don't think one would find very many news articles that resemble DB's narrative structure.

  33. Wallace Fard said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 7:33 am

    It'd be pretty tough to find any writer calling for a total prohibition on adjectives/adverbs. The advice, once you get past an attention-grabbing headline (e.g., King's "the road to hell is paved with adjectives"), usually boils down to something like "Don't rely on adjectives to prop up weak nouns. Give more thought to choosing your nouns in the first place. Your prose will be stronger and more precise as a result." And that advice seems sound to me. If you respect the writers who talk about this at all–Twain, White, King, lots of others–then their opinions on the matter bear a closer look, or at least a complete read, beyond the headlines. White's explanation in EOS, for example, is very clear and sensible, but that usually gets ignored here.

    [Not much about The Elements of Style gets ignored here; I hack away at them so often that some readers have begged me to stop. But I won't. Listen, Wallace: the reason it is stupid to recommend that "weak nouns" replaced by better chosen ones is that in nearly all cases a noun to express the whole of the meaning intended by some Adjective + Noun combination does not exist. Let's just take your own comment above, where you use the phrases total prohibition, weak nouns, closer look, and complete read. Where are the strong nouns that would replace these phrases and thus eliminate the attributive adjectives? They don't exist! That doesn't mean you wrote badly or carelessly. My point is that in nearly all cases of Adjective + Noun combinations that occur, there is no noun that could substitute preserving the sense. You call White's advice "very clear and sensible". His advice seems to me not just stupid, but actually impossible to follow, nearly all of the time. —GKP]

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