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Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Parts of Speech!?

Our next example is related to the word-parsimony fallacy but even stupider.  This is the notion that there are some parts of speech that writers should avoid, namely adjectives and adverbs. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem an odd thing to demand.  Life is full of things you should probably stay away from: street drugs, chronic borrowers, touchy lawyers, and strangers who when you answer the phone ask you in a heartfelt way how you’re doing today.

But parts of speech?  The parts of speech, after all, weren’t imposed on us by a government mandate or even by English teachers.  They arose from the need to communicate.  To reject them isn’t that different from a basketball coach announcing that from now on he wants his players to stop using their left foot while driving the lane.  Say you wish to tell a friend the following:

“My creepy boyfriend gave me a squashed and wilted rose for Valentine’s Day.  I tossed it in the trash and him out the door.”

This sentence can be “improved” by taking out the adjectives, which gives us:

“My boyfriend gave me a rose for Valentine’s Day.  I tossed it in the trash and him out the door.”

Your responses to these sentences would be radically different:

To the first: “Oh, well, your loss is the landfill’s gain.”

To the second: “Huh?”

As noted, the word-parsimony theory and the rage against modifiers sometimes become strange and irrational.  Consider the following recommendation, drawn up from the depths of the Internet:

“Thin nouns and adverbs; nouns and adverbs can make a sentence wordy and can be replaced with verbs.”

Here “thin” is the verb in the sentence, in case you thought it was an adjective.  In the interests of science, we made a serious attempt to put this recommendation into effect in our own writing.  In fact, we intended not just to thin our sentences but to put them on a strict diet.  But we failed miserably.  Let’s stay with just one of our own sentences, since we managed to get permission to meddle with it:

“As noted, the word-parsimony theory and the rage against modifiers sometimes become strange and irrational.”

There are three nouns here: “theory,” “rage,” and “modifiers.”  If you replaced the first with a verb, you wouldn’t even have a sentence.  You can’t very well say, “…the word-parsimony to theorize and to rage against modifiers…”  Sentences become lost and aimless when they lose their nouns.  Verbs generally do just fine without adverbs, except when they don’t.  You can find out when they are necessary simply by removing the adverbs from some of the sentences of those incompetents who wrote the classics.

Let’s go with Shakespeare:

’tis a consummation

[devoutly] to be wish’d


And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn [awry],

And lose the name of action.


An honest tale speeds best being [plainly] told

Richard III

We need to look at what competent writers actually do, as opposed to what we are told they should do.  What you will find is that they begin by using the most specific nouns, then make them even more specific with modifiers.  (Even this is just a strong tendency, not an infallible rule.  In the earlier example, we had to use the expression “sea-creatures” rather than, say, “scallops” or “shrimp” because it more than made up in oddness what it lacked in specificity.)

Here is a description from the brilliant S. J. Perelman, who wrote for the New Yorker: “a perfectly prosaic wax mannequin wearing a powder-blue ski jacket, canary-colored slacks, and synthetic elkskin loafers.”

There is something very important to note here: how easy it is to come up with a sentence no one else has ever written.  This is essential because it is newness that is vivid.  Perelman is a master at this.  Even his last phrase, all by itself (“synthetic elkskin loafers”) must be very rare in literature.  Google not only failed to find it on the Internet but couldn’t even come up with just “elkskin loafers,” with or without a hyphen.  You could argue that elkskin loafers couldn’t be visually distinguished from ordinary loafers, but that’s irrelevant.  Perelman was trying to come up with expressions that hadn’t been used yet and therefore hadn’t suffered the tarnish of familiarity.

And we can easily ruin Perelman’s sentence just by applying the word-parsimony theory to it, whereupon it becomes “a mannequin wearing a jacket, slacks, and shoes.”  Try selling that to the New Yorker.

And finally, to demonstrate what writers actually do with modifiers, we wheedled a linguist and a professor of French into counting the modifiers in the first paragraphs of some competent writings:

Dickens, Hard Times: 183 words; 2 adverbs and 25 adjectives.  The modifiers equal 15% of the word-count.

Mark Twain, Roughing It: 340 words; 17 adverbs and 24 adjectives.  12% of the word-count.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise: 146 words; 4 adverbs and sixteen adjectives.  14% of the word-count.

Melville, Moby-Dick: 199 words; 9 adverbs and 13 adjectives.  11% of the word-count.

De Maupassant, La Vie errante: 204 words; 20 adverbs and 15 adjectives.  17.5% of the word-count.

We put Twain in because he once wrote, “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”  Taking this to mean “Don’t use adjectives” is like thinking that a sign warning against thin ice means you should never go ice skating.

The percentages of modifiers in these randomly chosen passages are fairly constant, ranging from eleven percent to seventeen and a half.  This leads us to a conclusion that seems to us essential: learn usage from competent authors, not theorists.  When considering diction, in other words, check your theories at the door and against actual usage.

Originally published in another dementia on June 28, 2011