Writing without modifiers?

You’ve been missing all those grammar rants from the Grumpy, Grouchy Wielder of the Red Pen, haven’t you? Okay, have a rant — now with more snark and sarcasm! 🙂

My resolution to keep my nose out of Real Writers’ business in matters of grammar and punctuation lasted… less than a week. I promise I’ll try again (and again, and again, until it finally sticks), but first, this:

Back during the summer, I think, I saw a few blog posts for some challenge or another about writing without using adjectives. Supposedly adjectives are bad because they’re always just the writer’s opinion. I saw several attempts the bloggers themselves thought had met the challenge requirements perfectly.

They didn’t.

Perhaps the reason for this is a lack of understanding what an adjective is.

So, yeah, I’m gonna tell you, because that’s what I do: stick my nose in things that are none of my business and pretend I know what the hell I’m talking about (which, obviously, I don’t, because if I knew a damn thing about grammar, I’d be a novelist instead of an editor, right?).

An adjective is any word that modifies (describes) a noun or pronoun. It’s that simple. I do not believe it is possible to write a grammatically correct, complete story (no, for fuck’s sake, those stupid “6-word memoirs” don’t count) without using at least a few adjectives. (I don’t think it can be done without adverbs, either, as well you know if you’ve been reading my blog for long.)

When I first learned of this challenge, I’d hoped that its creator was trying to make a point of some kind. That’s what I’d do, after all. If it were me, I’d challenge writers to come up with just one paragraph (okay, I’d say Write 150 words instead of Write one paragraph, because I like to make people think — it’s just this personality flaw I have) without using any adjectives. Then I’d look at the challenge entries and see all the adjectives that people didn’t even realize they were using, and I’d use that as the basis for a blog post about what adjectives are and how they’re, y’know, often necessary.

Not that I’m going to do that, of course, because I don’t know a damn thing about parts of speech — or at least, I don’t know how such things are done now that Grammar Don’t Matter ™. Same difference. I’m stuck back in the Dark Ages when writers still thought using a comma to separate a direct address from the rest of a line of dialogue was a good thing.

(I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t know if I intend this as sarcasm or not.)

Anyway. My opinion (as wrong as it is) is that adjectives are not automatically the writer expressing an opinion, no matter what journalism students are told. (Also, why should fiction follow the same standards as journalism? “Just the facts, ma’am” makes for damn boring fiction.) Example: If I describe Doodle as a black cat, black is a factual description of the color of his fur; it’s not my goddamn opinion. Were I writing a Serious Journalism Piece about cats in general and Doodle in particular, it would not be inappropriate for me to use such adjectives. In fact, it would probably be a requirement.

(Here I insert a photo of a kitty to make this blog post seem less harsh…)

glowcat

Doodle the ink-furred kittybeast

If I were qualified — at least as a reader — to have an opinion about The Absolute Rules of Writing ™ (which somehow manage to coexist with Grammer Don’t Matter ™, possibly because the Rules say that grammar is irrelevant as long as you’re expressing the same most-uniquest ideas as the rest of the class), I’d say, “Don’t be a parrot. Think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Don’t insist on eliminating any part of speech from writing on someone else’s say-so.” Think of all the things we wouldn’t be able to write about anymore if we had no adjectives.

Also, as always, I dare anyone who truly believes that adjectives (or adverbs) should never be used to prove it can be done — prove it for real — before expecting anyone else to do it. Write a story without using any modifiers. Or stop this nonsense.

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to Writing without modifiers?

  1. Laura L. says:

    “Don’t hold back — tell me what you really think.” The rants are one of the biggest reasons that I read you. It isn’t just the subject matter, but you always make me laugh. You’re always on point and I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mei-Mei says:

    Oh, we’ve totally been missing the grammar rants! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Professional (and I use the word advisedly) sports announcers have killed the adverb. Perhaps all of grammar is next, but there seems to be some kind of law that forbids people on NESN or any sports channel from using the word “well” rather than “good.” Or any adverb. Anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No one runs quickly anymore. They only run fast, because they’ve been taught that only words ending in -ly are adverbs, and Adverbs Are Bad — Every Adverb, All the Time, Because Some High School Teacher Said So ™.

      (Disclaimer: I have nothing specifically against high school teachers. I used to be one. On the other hand, I recall both my university classmates in the education courses and my colleagues at the high school being… sometimes as clueless as a box of rocks, even about their chosen area of focus. University instructors assume, as they should be able to, that their students learned grammar and whatnot in high school, if not earlier. High school teachers, however, may not KNOW this stuff themselves, so they can’t pass it on to their students. Also, considering how much non-academic stuff teachers are required to deal with every day, it’s no wonder some of the basics get dropped in favor of, say, instead trying to teach young Kyle and Janet not to throw books or drop their trousers or flop on the floor like a fish. Second disclaimer: None of my students ever threw books in my classroom.)

      Someday there will be no rules of grammar because most people will have abandoned real words entirely and will speak in acronyms such as the abbreviations used in texting: “Oh em gee, Stacy! Be are be…” I hope to have emigrated to another planet by then.

      Like

  4. ziresta says:

    Wow. I thought I’d heard all the dumb “how you’re supposed to write” rules, but adjectives always being the author’s opinion is a new one. I HAVE read advice that said to limit the number of adjectives you use, but that was from an author who was opposed to description of any sort . . . to use your example of the cat, his opinion would be that unless it was relevant to the story that the cat be black, its color should be left to the reader’s imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it’s a good idea to stack adjectives five deep in every sentence unless it’s being done for deliberate and desired effect (see parts of Ian MacDonald’s sci-fi novel Desolation Road), but I WANT descriptions. Saying it should all be left to the reader’s imagination… If I wanted to imagine the whole thing for myself, I’d just imagine my OWN stories; I have plenty. I read because I want someone else’s stories sometimes — I want to know what THEY imagined.

      Like

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