From the issue dated February 20, 2004
The Adjective -- So Ludic, So Minatory, So Twee
By BEN YAGODA
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
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
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
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.
- "In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country-fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof." Roger Angell on the gridwork at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
- "She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils." Sylvia Townsend Warner.
- "The Sunday's events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant." John Updike.
- "He had the surface involvement -- style -- while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind." Nicholson Baker on Updike.
- "The great out-sticking ears that frame his face like cartilaginous quotation marks. ..." The late Michael Kelly on Ross Perot.
- "Churchill is morally irrefragable in American discourse, and can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln." Christopher Hitchens.
- " ... the chordal quality of a man who is simultaneously overbearing and winning." Stanley Kauffman.
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."
- "His passes were very specific." The former basketball player Bobby Jones, on his teammate Maurice Cheeks.
- "[T.S.] Eliot ... would on occasion provide firm and worldly advice,
even to unlikely and mutinous loners like Wyndham Lewis." Donald Davie.
- "The government of the United States, in both its legislative arm
and its executive arm, is ignorant, corrupt, and disgusting." H.L. Mencken.
- "Your old-fashioned tirade -- /loving, rapid, merciless -- /breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head." Robert Lowell.
- "[Andrew] Sarris's prose was dense, balanced, aphoristic, alliterative.
... [Pauline] Kael's was loping, derisive, intimate, gag-packed, as American
as Lenny Bruce." Richard Corliss.
- "The American anti-Communism of the Fifties was abstract, extreme, self-serving, and false." John Lukacs.
- "Society, in these States, is cankered, crude, superstitious, and rotten." Walt Whitman.
- "... the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Thomas Hobbes.
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
- "[Ted Hawkins's] voice was woolly and pensive."
- "[Thelonious Monk's] touch was blunt and unpretty, and his solos were droll and suspenseful."
- " ... a groan that's jaded, long-suffering, cranky, and shrewd." On Walter Becker's voice.
- "[Aretha Franklin's] voice was creamy, loving, humble, sassy, and indomitable."
- "Frenetic and offhand, deranged and savvy, funny and brutal, crisp
and wayward, the Pixies brought their calmly schizophrenic, firmly dislocated
rock to the Ritz on Friday night."
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
Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education