Language Log readers may recall the link I gave to the Vulture Reading Room discussion of The Lost Symbol on the New York Magazine website, where I made some comments on the extraordinarily heavy use Dan Brown's book makes of redundant (either pointless or already implicit) attributive modifiers. I illustrated from an early passage about renowned Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon's arrival at the Washington Dulles Airport: the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet, the soft leather seats in the luxurious interior, the cold January air, the white fog on the misty tarmac, the middle-aged woman with curly blond hair under stylish knit wool hat who babbles boringly to him about his own choice of attire, and then:
Mercifully, a professional-looking man in a dark suit got out of a sleek Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal and held up his finger.
(No, I don't know which finger.) Well, by a weird coincidence (truth is stranger than even very strange fiction), last night I myself was flown into Dulles Airport at the invitation of people I have not met. And guess what…
I didn't come in on a corporate jet (though I did upgrade my scheduled flight from economy to a sort of extra-legroom enhanced economy, and that helped). And I wasn't actually greeted planeside by a personal greeter in a stylish knit wool hat. But I'm here to do a trial video-recording of a lecture on grammar for The Teaching Company, and (as my Language Log colleague John McWhorter promised) they treat their professors very well. As I emerged from the hell of the Dulles baggage hall (and my god, it was third-world chaos in there), I noticed, mercifully, holding up not a finger but a sign saying "GEOFFREY PULLUM", there was a professional-looking man in a dark suit, and yes, he had a Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal! Whoa, I'm Professor Robert Langdon, arriving at the nation's capital in a professionally-driven limo!
And you know, I couldn't help noticing that it was sleek.
Just like Dan said. That is the problem with his over-use of attributive modifiers, of course. He tells us things we knew. Lincoln Town Cars are always sleek. That's the whole point of them. Sleek things to park near terminals so that professional-looking men in dark suits can collect professors and senators in them. That's what they are. There aren't any chunky, boxy little Lincoln Town Cars, like glassed-in 1948 Studebaker pickup trucks. Sleekness is of the very essence, and we all know that. The modifier served no purpose at all.
I should add that my visit is so far going much better than Robert Langdon's visit to Washington in The Lost Symbol. He is whisked to the Capitol to give a lecture, but it is a total bust (there is nobody there; it was a trick to get him to come to Washington), and almost immediately he encounters the severed hand of a beloved friend and mentor in the middle of the floor of the Capitol rotunda.
I have been much luckier. No mutilated mentor. And I am quite sure that there is no modifier-bestrewed, hideously tattooed, multi-disguised, Arabic-named, masonically-inducted, revenge-driven, symbolic clue-dropping, sadistic torturer tracking my every move in or under the city… Wait a minute, there's someone at the door.