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The Adjective -- So Ludic, So Minatory, So Twee
by Ben Yagoda, The Chronicle Review

As far as not getting respect goes, adjectives leave Rodney Dangerfield in the dust. They rank right up there with Osama bin Laden, Geraldo Rivera, and the customer-service policies of cable-TV companies. That it is good to avoid them is one of the few points on which the sages of writing agree. Thus Voltaire: "The adjective is the enemy of the noun, though it agrees with it in number and gender." Thus Twain: "When you catch an adjective, kill it." And thus William Zinsser: "Most adjectives are... unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun."

As the French might put it, those quotes have reason. Writers frequently pull out the adjectives when they either haven't, or are afraid they haven't, provided sufficient data -- specific nouns and active verbs -- to get their ideas across. So if you point out that the jaw of every male in the room dropped when a woman walked in, it's neither necessary nor helpful to describe her as "beautiful." And establishing that someone kicked his opponent when 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, deplorable, despicable, or vile. Beginning or inept writers are inclined to stack up adjectives in front of a noun (especially when attempting to do justice to nature). The words give you the feel of a bunch of football players piling on, long after the play has been whistled dead... [ the whole article ]

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