Adjectives and adverbs

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A puzzling note arrived in my inbox a few days ago:

I came across an article you wrote about the use of adverbs and adjectives.  To count the use of adverbs and adjectives you actually wrote a program. Is this something you would be willing to share or give me some advice on how to create myself? I am looking for a tool that our marketing team can use to keep the puffery to a minimum.

It was puzzling because the cited article was  "Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs", Slate 9/10/2013.  And as the title suggests, my attitude towards eliminating adjective and adverbs was a skeptical one:

Calculating the relative percentages of adjectives and adverbs in texts tells us nothing useful about their readability, clarity, or efficiency.

The LLOG version of that article was "Proportion of adjectives and adverbs: Some facts", 9/7/2013, which actually links to some Python code using NLTK that does the calculations in question.

You'd need to adjust the first line to reflect your own Python environment. And providing an OS-independent browser-based tool — which presumably is what my correspondent needs — would take a little more work. But I continue to be skeptical that a marketing team can avoid puffery just by using such a tool.

Anyhow, it occurred to me to wonder about the part-of-speech habits of this season's crop of presidential candidates — and since I've taken the trouble to clean up the debate transcripts, and I've got the POS-tabulating script, I decided to spend a few minutes on a Breakfast Experiment™ to find out.

Overall data for four of the candidates,  from the 12 Republican and 9 Democratic debates:

         ALL   ADJ ADV    N     V    BE
Trump   42460 3168 3391  7895 10313 1121
Clinton 57083 4488 3418 12051 12891 1646
Sanders 51285 4510 2917 12068 10584 1785
Cruz    32916 2662 1610  7772  6991 1020

A table of adjective and adverb percentages suggests that Donald Trump is not a big adjective man, though he's fonder of adverbs than the others are:

         Trump  Clinton Sanders  Cruz
ADJ        7.5%   7.9%    8.8%    8.1%
ADV        8.0%   6.0%    5.7%    4.9%
ADJ+ADV   15.4%  13.6%   14.5%   13.9%

This is further emphasized by the Adverb-to-Adjective ratio:

Trump  Clinton Sanders Cruz
 1.07   0.76    0.65   0.60

We can also see that Trump is slightly fonder of verbs than the others:

     Trump  Clinton Sanders  Cruz
N     18.6%  21.1%   23.5%   23.6%
V     24.3%  22.6%   20.6%   21.2%

But Trump's verbs are more likely to be "real verbs" than the others' verbs are, especially Sanders' verbs — here are the percentages of verbs that are forms of to be:

Trump Clinton Sanders  Cruz
10.8%  12.8%   16.9%  14.6%

That last result suggests that further exploration of to be usage might be interesting — to what extent do the differences reflect the use of equative sentences, as opposed to passive verb forms, or other things?

But overall, I'm not convinced that there's a lot of there there.

Some of the previous LL posts on modificational anxiety:

"Those who take the adjectives from the table", 2/18/2004
"Avoiding rape and adverbs", 2/25/2004
"Modification as social anxiety", 5/16/2004
"The evolution of disornamentation", 2/21/2005
"Adjectives banned in Baltimore", 3/5/2007
"Automated adverb hunting and why you don't need it", 3/5/2007
"Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard", 4/29/2010
"Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts", 2/21/2013
"'Clutter' in (writing about) science writing", 8/30/2013



  1. Ethan said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    Inquiring minds want to know – is "bigly" tallied under ADJ or ADV?

  2. Guy said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 11:46 am


    I thought the consensus was that he is saying "big league", in which case "big" is an adjective and "league" is a noun. If he were saying "bigly", it would pretty uncontroversially be an adverb.

  3. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

    It's hard to tell with just four speakers to go on, but it looks as if there could be some kind of correlation between the ADV:ADJ ratio and the V:N ratio (as might be expected given that adjectives canonically modify nouns and adverbs canonically modify verbs). Of course, there are all sorts of other factors that could come into this, but to the extent that speakers are choosing between alternatives like "caused prices to increase dramatically" and "caused a dramatic increase in prices," I'd expect some sort of connection between these two ratios.

  4. Rubrick said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    I'm quite tickled by the implication that a computer program might in fact be better than a human with a marketing degree at identifying puffery.

  5. Roger Lustig said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 11:32 pm

    This is yuge.

  6. Graeme said,

    May 19, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    Amusing. So 'grand house' is more puffed than 'mansion'?

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