Friday, January 4, 2013

Death to all adjectives!

"As to the Adjective; when in doubt, strike it out."

-- Mark Twain

I recently encountered this sentence in a client's draft of a white paper:
Inconsistent, often contradictory demands for detail are so widespread, costly and predictable ...
The sentence is only half over and we have five adjectives describing "demands for detail." Each adjective is an idea in itself, a concept that requires some thinking.

There is a no way a reader can handle that many ideas in the short span of time it takes to read the sentence. So the reader will just rush by, recording this group of words in his brain as mush.

Elsewhere in the paper we get:
... a low risk, high payback ...
This is just two adjectives, of course, but they are made memorable by the contrast of "low" and "high," even though what is low and what is high are different in kind. Moreover, we easily get the whole idea of taking little risk for a big payoff. The only verbal risk here is that this is something of a cliche.

Further on we encounter:
... strategic and operational consistency ...
This is not as powerful as "high" and "low," but it is acceptable, because it delineates two contrasting realms. In business we understand those realms to be different, and this phrase suggests one thing works in both. Catchy.

I'm reminded of Yossarian in Catch 22, who was given the task of censoring the letters of enlisted me. Joseph Heller writes:
To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters buta, an and the.
Yossarian would make a great editor.

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