Sunday, September 15, 2013

Exiling Adjectives and Adverbs: Does Writing Clarity Depend on Vilifying Modifiers?


At least that's the gist of Mark Liberman's quantitative analysis of adjective and adverb frequency in select writing samples.

In "Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs" (Slate, September 10, 2013) Liberman challenges popular conventional wisdom that says,

To make writing clear, banish adjectives and adverbs. Go through your writing with the cap off the red pen and strike through as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. Be direct and to the point. State what you mean without the embellishment. Avoid the clutter adjectives and adverbs add to your writing. They make writing dense and unreadable. 

That's a rough paraphrase of the conventional wisdom Liberman pushes against. His study is fascinating, in part because of the texts he analyzes.

First, taking a page from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for whom the notorious Bulwer-Lytton annual bad writing contest is named, Liberman analyzed a paassage from Paul Clifford. Here's the first sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The 1591 word passage Liberman examined contained 11.7% adjectives and adverbs (6.8% adjectives and 4.9% adverbs.

Next, Liberman turned his attention to On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Zinsser, of course, is one of the writing authorities who decry the use of adjectives and adjectives as "clutter." Yet in the 3,500 word passage he analyzed, Liberman found 12.8% of the words are adjectives and adverbs! Does this mean Zinsser's writing is less clear than Buwer-Lytton's? That, of course, is doubtful.

Liberman also analyzed a passage from the notoriously dense Jaques Derrida's Of Grammatology. Derrida used 13.9% adjectives and adverbs in the 17, 134 words in chapter 2. That's 19% more than Zinsser.

As Liberman notes, Mark Twain also bashed the use of adjectives and adverbs: "When you catch an adjective, kill it." Twain's letter, however, uses 14.1% adjectives and adverbs of its 1304 words! Maybe Twain was being satirical. Clearly, I need to reread the letter.

Science writer Okulicz-Kozaryn, author of "Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs  in academia," and the one who inspired Liberman's study, devoted fully 15.8% of his 803 words to adjectives and adverbs, which goes to show "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," and the truth of "First, practice what you preach."

In all, Liberman studied 45 texts. There is a winner of the prize for using the most adjectives and adverbs. The record was set in 2004 by Ben Yagoda who wrote an article called "The Adjective--So Ludic, So Minatory, So Twee" for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Hw ironic! In his 1607 word article, Yagoda devoted 18.3% to adjectives and adverbs!

Liberman's fascinating study (adjective intended), makes me ponder: What does make writing clear?

Writing Clearly is about more than the number of adjectives and adverbs a writer uses.

Writing clearly is about diction and syntax, and punctuation, and grammar.

Writing clearly is about noun clauses, adjective phrases and clauses, adverbial phrases and clauses.

Could it be that writing clearly may be about many of the seemingly archaic rules teachers such as my eighth grade English teacher drilled into us via sentence diagramming: avoid prepositions at the end of a sentence, avoid split infinitives, avoid beginning a sentence with because and with coordinating conjunctions. Those probably aren't the rules we want to attach ourselves to.

Perhaps, however, we need to pay more attention to meta-writing, the kind that focuses on sentence-level considerations, and, dare I say it, close reading that analyzes syntactical structures so students can learn from them and model them in their own writing.

As Liberman explains:

Finally, there's a technical flaw in the whole "avoid adjectives and adverbs" admonition. Nouns are often modified by other nouns, by prepositional phrases, and in other ways that don't involve adjectives; and verbs are often modified by prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and so on. And if it were true that modification in general was a Bad Thing, then we'd need to count these other sorts of modifiers as well, not just adjectives and adverbs.

Clearly, in English and in writing in English, there are no absolutes. Write on! 

1 comment:

  1. It seems that the question What makes writing clear? is a much harder to answer than What makes writing unclear? We can be aware of the problems that arise when too many adjectives are stuffed into a piece that doesn't support it, or when a sentence is started with 'Because'. And yet I would agree that writing is too complex a science/art to hold steadfast to a rule like 'avoid adjectives.' It seems that the moment we attempt to holdfast to such rules in writing, we are destined to regret the idea. How many students, for example, have been led astray with the need to find alternatives to the word 'said'? And sometimes a good sentence starts with 'And' (not this one, but I've encountered others).
    Thanks for getting me thinking on a Sunday morning, Glenda!