If You See An Adjective, Kill It — Or At Least Ask Whether It Should Be Allowed To Live

This line in a Newscast spot today …

“An investigation continues into the bizarre accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in western New York.”

… led to a discussion in the newsroom about the advice (from Strunk & White and others) to write with nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives.

The adjective that drew our attention was “bizarre.”

First, we agreed it wasn’t the right word to use. As NPR and other news outlets have reported, it’s not unusual for stock car and dirt track drivers to confront each other. Sometimes it happens on the track. The result in this case was tragic, but the events that led up to it were not unusual. So “bizarre” had to go.

Then Kathy Rushlow said that “verbs, not adjectives,” is a good rule to keep in mind. Her comment reminded me of what one of my first editors did 30 or so years ago as he butchered improved my copy. He hated adverbs that ended in “ly” and killed every one. My stories never seemed to suffer.

But it’s worth noting that there’s been some pushback from grammarians in recent years.

Linguist Geoffry Pullman called Strunk & White’s advice about avoiding adjectives and adverbs a “mysterious decree.”

He’s pointed out that Strunk & White even violated their own rule:

” ‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,’ they insist. … And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: ‘The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.’ “

On the Grammar Underground blog, writer June Casagrande suggested that there are “adjectives and manner adverbs that are worth keeping.” They are, “the ones that add new information.”

“The ones that should go are usually the ones that contain value judgments,” she adds. “They tell readers how to feel about something rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves.”

So: “Mark wears an obnoxiously loud shirt when he bikes.”

Might be better this way: “Mark wears a bright white shirt decorated with Grateful Dead logos when he bikes.”

(Memmos; Aug. 14, 2014)

August 14, 2014

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