The checkered career of the adjective: Much-maligned part of speech has a place in literature
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 January 2005)

Those who write about the craft of writing have always treated adjectives with a certain derision, rising sometimes to hatred. "The adjective is the enemy of the noun," warned Voltaire, and Mark Twain advised, "When you catch an adjective, kill it." Can it be that bad? It's only a part of speech, and in fact an essential one.

But books about writing call it a burden we should avoid whenever possible. An online guide says, "Adjectives are frail; don't ask them to do more work than they should." William Strunk and E.B. White, in The Elements of Style, are blunter: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." Of course, they use adjectives often, as in their advice to "Omit needless words" and "Be clear."

Anyone who sets out to defend adjectives (adverbs are a separate issue) should first admit their complicity in language crimes. In journalism, for instance, certain adjectives suffocate meaning by embedding themselves in cliches, encouraging journalists to depict a world in which death is always untimely, edges are always cutting, ends bitter, developments stunning, ceremonies solemn, increases whopping and careers checkered. Editors should protect readers from these automatic pairings, and some editors do. Once, in the draft of a magazine article, I referred to the founder of Canadian socialism as "the saintly J.S. Woodsworth." My editor, Gary Ross, wisely urged me to summon my courage and become the first journalist in memory not to call Woodsworth saintly.

Moreover, adjectives can keep bad company. Tyrants adore them. Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet, said that in the Soviet era he grew suspicious of adjectives because the regime liked them so much: Great Red Army, Victorious Red Army, Heroic Working Class, etc. Holub said that under the Soviets, language was afflicted with "a sickness of adjectives."

Even in conversation, promiscuous deployment of adjectives defeats itself. I once knew a man, not at all stupid, whose every passionate utterance climaxed in a string of redundant modifiers; he would describe someone he didn't like as glum, dour, morose, mirthless, dry, unfunny and, finally, humourless. He may have spent too much time reading Thomas Wolfe, who never saw an adjective he didn't like. Consider one passage from Look Homeward, Angel:

"The nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms... inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young earth... good male smell of his father's sitting-room... smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent... blistered varnished wood upon the hearth... the brown tired autumn earth... fat limp underdone bacon... large deep-hued stringbeans smoking-hot...."

Look Homeward, Angel appeared in 1929, the same year Ernest Hemingway, a great adjective hater, brought out A Farewell to Arms. The adjective was as essential to Wolfe as the elimination of it was to Hemingway. Both writers inspired imitators, with embarrassing results. A bad Wolfe imitator gives the impression of straining to be evocative; a bad Hemingway imitator seems to have nothing to say.

Hemingway's opinion prevailed among critics, because his restraint appeared virtuous and because everyone knew that badly used adjectives overwhelm a subject and deaden it. Jonathan Raban, in his book Passage to Juneau, found himself peering at the Pacific coastline through a screen of adjective-infested cliches: "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."

I ran across the quote from Raban last year in an article written by Ben Yagoda, the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yagoda, in a bold stroke, protested against what he called "the defamation of an entire part of speech." He argued that a resourceful and creative use of adjectives indicates originality, wit, observation and "the cast and quality of the writer's mind." To illustrate, he included a little anthology of well-used adjectives, climaxing in the phrase of Thomas Hobbes describing the life of man in nature: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." He also offered something similar from Walt Whitman: "Society, in these States, is cankered, crude, superstitious and rotten."

Where would Hobbes and Whitman be without their adjectives? And where, today, would wine journalists be without the ability to call an Australian wine "Opulent, voluptuous and sexy... big, silky," as Robert Parker, world champion wine describer, recently did.

For Parker and his kind, the adjective is a professional necessity. In literature, an adjective and a noun ideally rise together from the page, supporting each other in their flight toward meaning. Sometimes the words are simple, like those Margaret Laurence gives her narrator in A Bird in the House: "That House in Manawaka... was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader's embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness." Or the adjectives Alice Munro uses in describing an unattractive but assertive character in Open Secrets: "She had put on a quantity of makeup... pale and pinkish and unsuited to her olive skin, her black, heavy eyebrows... Perhaps she saw herself transformed by the pale powder that was hanging on her cheeks, the thick pink lipstick."

Saul Bellow chooses adjectives for their overtones. At the opening of Herzog, he makes every one of them sing his melancholy overture; he tells us about "flushed and dusty" evenings, a malodorous sofa, a grey, webby window. Howard Moss, a poet and critic, once suggested that W.H. Auden had tried to revivify the adjective, "that most maligned part of English speech," by attaching human modifiers to non-human nouns, leaving us thinking about an abject willow, uncritical islands, baroque frontiers and "The modest conduct of fogs." Shirley Hazzard may have been influenced by Auden when she recently described, in The Great Fire, "Asia's unapologetic smells."

Clifton Fadiman, a popular American critic of the mid-20th century, belonged to the anti-adjective party and expressed the common view in a line that now appears in quotations books: "The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech." True enough, so far as it goes. The wrong adjective will throw a careless sentence onto the ground and fracture its collar bone. But the felicitous adjective, chosen with thought and imagination, can make a sentence fly.

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