The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated February 20, 2004


The Adjective -- So Ludic, So Minatory, So Twee


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.

I acknowledge, moreover, that when writers commit the sin of showing off -- of being flowery or obscure for no reason other than to call attention to themselves -- adjectives are most often the tools of the crime. There is no reason to use "rebarbative" instead of "unpleasant," "annoying," or some other negative epithet, other than to be fancy. Senator Robert C. Byrd is justly snickered at for saying things like "maledicent language" and "contumelious lip." Gore Vidal has been accused of excessive fondness for words like "mephitic" and "riparian." In just one essay, the poet James Fenton writes that " ... the element of the aleatoric may well be genuinely present," and refers to "proleptic writers such as Ibsen and Strindberg" and to a "hieratic figure somewhat reminiscent of Ernst." That's too proleptic for me.

The only good use for that kind of adjective is comedy. In One Fat Englishman, Kingsley Amis's narrator expresses surprise that the cast of characters in a young American's novel does not include "paraplegic necrophiles, hippoerotic jockeys, exhibitionistic castrates, coprophagic pig farmers, armless flagellationists and the rest of the bunch." (Hippo-: "Having to do with horses." Coprophagic: "Involving or indulging in the eating of excrement.") S.J. Perelman made a career out of formulations such as: "the evening a young person from the Garrick Gaieties, in a Corybantic mood, swung into a cancan and executed a kick worthy of La Goulue."

But some writers' abuse of adjectives has led to the defamation of an entire part of speech. I believe that a resourceful and creative use of adjectives is one of the most important, if not the most important, marks of a first-rate essayist or critic. It is an indication of originality, wit, observation -- indeed, the cast and quality of the writer's mind.

I feel so strongly about this that I am willing to admit, at the risk of being called a train spotter, that I have been collecting outstanding or notable examples of adjective use for close to two decades. A recent addition to my thick file is a sentence from an op-ed piece that the novelist William Boyd contributed last summer to The New York Times. Talking of French TV weather people's dour forecasts about the hot weather, he wrote, "The tone is minatory and worrying, and very infectious." "Worrying" and "infectious" are good, but what made me clip the quote was "minatory," which I found defined in the dictionary as "menacing or threatening." So why is it better than "menacing" or "threatening"? Well, the "-ing" ending of either would awkwardly echo "worrying" (itself a nice adjective), as well as incorrectly imply that the weathercasters themselves embodied a threat.

I didn't mind looking up "minatory" in the dictionary. That book contains some good adjectives whose meaning more familiar ones simply can't get at. Simple words are fine for broad brushstrokes but often not adequate for the intricacies and nuances of human relationships, characteristics, and situations. Writers who are interested in exploring those nuances will, as Virgil Thomson, the composer and music critic put it, "look to the adjectives." Nor is it necessary to carry Webster's with you at all times. When these words are deployed skillfully, a reader can often infer or at least guess at the meaning from the context. Here are some nice uses of unfamiliar adjectives (the italics are mine):
Some other nifty uncommon adjectives in my file are: mordant, capacious, sedulous, fustian, supernal, phatic, liminal, nugatory, tensile, cumbrous, bibulous, gormless, shambolic, panoptic, oneiric, bumptious, demotic, pertinacious, and ludic.

Much of this is a matter of taste, to be sure. The words above work for me; you may find them showy and vulgar. And there are adjectives that, when I first encountered them, moved me enough to clip them, but have since, in my opinion, become clichés. Those would include vertiginous, lubricious, snarky, febrile, sclerotic, priapic, cloacal, etiolated, twee, soigné, pellucid, perfervid, palpable, lambent, plangent, iconic, and pneumatic (as in "Renoir's pneumatic nudes").

Of course, there are different clichés for different fields. Reviewers of all kinds are probably the most notorious abusers and over-users of adjectives: They can (or so it seems) merely be plugged into a sentence and relieve you of having to think. The condition was nailed by a recent New Yorker cartoon, in which a man looks up from a book and declares, "Forceful, yes! But not lucid, as the Times would have me believe."

In his book Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban has a nice riff on how clichéd adjectives can actually alter our perception of the world:

"Two centuries of romanticism, much of it routine and degenerate, has blunted everyone's ability to look at waterfalls and precipices in other than dusty and secondhand terms. Motoring through the Sound, watching for deadheads, I sailed through a logjam of dead literary clichés: snow-capped peaks above, fathomless depths below, and, in the middle of the picture, the usual gaunt cliffs, hoary crags, wild woods and crystal cascades."

Raban is himself an adjectival virtuoso, and I call your attention to the pair of paired adjectives in the first sentence of the passage: routine and degenerate, dusty and secondhand. Not only is it difficult to extract just the right doozy of an adjective out of the hornbook, but the maneuver can be performed at most twice in the course of an article or chapter. Any more than that and you look like an exhibitionist. A more durable and ultimately more satisfying strategy is what Raban is doing here: using the conventional adjective in an unconventional, at times metaphorical way.

And so here is a selection of more or less familiar adjectives, used to splendid effect in unexpected ways:
You'll notice that there's a different feel depending on whether one, two, three, or four or more adjectives are used. Martin Amis is another contemporary virtuoso (and, I suspect, a fellow collector), and here's one sentence where, in describing a single, he uses a double and a five-spot: "The word 'Larkinesque' used to evoke the wistful, the provincial, the crepuscular, the sad, the unloved; now it evokes the scabrous and the supremacist."

Raban and Amis are, of course, British, and by way of standing up for American practitioners, I'd like to shine the spotlight briefly on The New York Times's popular-music critic, Jon Pareles, whose use of adjectives in his concert reviews is resourceful, invigorating, and fine:
Adjective difficulties often come when writers want to say "good" or "bad" in a forceful or stylish way, but haven't thought enough about which word to choose. Kenneth Tynan's Oxford tutor wrote on one of Tynan's papers: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dislogic adjectives -- They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" The tutor was C.S. Lewis.

Condemnatory adjectives, for some reason, present less of a problem. George Orwell often devotes several paragraphs of relatively noncommittal description to something he clearly doesn't approve of. Only then comes the money shot, in the form of an adjective like "abhorrent," "unspeakable," or "disgusting." Once I worked with a food critic named Janet Bukovinsky, and I have always treasured her description of a certain dish: "desiccated and nasty." Even pop-lingo terms like "bogus," "clueless," and "random" have a certain zing.

Praise is tougher, in large part because verbal inflation has taken its toll on "wonderful," "great," "fantastic," "remarkable," and all the rest. The main rule seems to be the simpler, the better. I have a clipping from the sports pages, of all places, in which the running back Charlie Garner accounted for his success in a game: "The holes were sweet. All I did was run."

Indeed, the most memorable literary adjective in the entire language is just four letters long. It appears in the fourth line of the first book of the Bible: "And God saw the light, that it was good."

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author, most recently, of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, to be published in June by HarperResource.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 24, Page B13

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