I was reading through a guide on legal writing ("Legal Writing That Works”, by James McElhaney), when I stumbled across a particularly unreasonable piece of prescriptivist peeving about adjectives and adverbs: “When you go back over what you’ve written, cross out every modifier - every adjective and adverb - you can.” The “you can” caveat suggests that one should exercise at least some discretion when one goes modifier-hunting, but, even so, this seems like a needlessly antagonist attitude to take towards modifiers. Why, one might wonder, should one be so hostile to modifiers? The author explains, “Nouns and verbs are the gut-stuff of a good story. Adjectives and adverbs are often discounted as the paid-for feelings of a professional advocate.”
While peeving at modifiers as “needless words” is very old, the idea that adjectives and adverbs are the questionable wares of street-huckster lawyers, while nouns and verbs are, i suppose, reliable goods sold by an honest vendor, is a bit new to me. Indeed, I wondered how any person, particularly one who seems quite intelligent when he isn’t condemning modifiers, could possibly think that nouns and verbs are inherently more sincere or authentic than adjectives and adverbs. I realize I’m likely preaching to the choir here, but I found it interesting to try to figure out precisely what is wrong with this prescription.
The mental process must have gone something like this: 1. Premise: Nouns and verbs are the key ingredients to a story, 2. Corollary: Adjectives and adverbs are mere surplusage and fluff, 3. Semi-rhetorical question: Why would a lawyer use fluff and surplusage at all when telling “the story” of a case? 4. Answer: I’ll tell you why, to try to distract me from how bad the guts of the story are, with appeals to my emotions (the sleazebag!). 5. Admonition: if you don’t want to be taken as a bought-and-paid for hack, avoid those smarmy adjectives and adverbs whenever you can, and use nouns and verbs like an honest person. So the assertion that adjectives and adverbs are “paid-for feelings” seems to rest on the idea that they are “fluff”.
But this is nonsense. Some adjectives and adverbs are fluff, and sentences that rely on fluff are generally ineffective. “Opposing counsel’s arguments are silly and clearly incorrect.” Calling an argument “silly” is itself a bit silly (at least in a formal context) and saying an argument is “clearly” incorrect is not particularly persuasive: it would be better show that its clearly incorrect than to pronounce that it is. But you can’t simply delete the adjectives and adverbs to fix it. If you literally deleted all of them, you’d be left with “Counsel’s arguments are and” which is not a complete sentence. If you deleted “silly” and “clearly,” (and “and”, since there is now only one adjective) you’d be left with “Opposing counsel’s arguments are incorrect,” which is not much of an improvement over the original: it doesn’t tell us why you think the other guy is wrong, while the original sentence at least conveyed a vague idea as to why this was so. And nouns and verbs, or at least noun and verb choices, can be equally fluffy and unpersuasive. “Counsel for the plaintiff is a clown, and his arguments are absurdities.” This is actually much worse than the original. The problem with the original sentence is not that it over-relies on adjectives and adverbs, but that it fails to articulate a reasoned basis for discounting opposing counsel’s arguments. A “good” version of this sentence might be something like, “Opposing counsel’s arguments fail, as they rely upon a strained interpretation of the key statute that would, if accepted, lead to absurd results that could not have been intended by the legislature when it enacted that statute.” The “good” version of the sentence explains what is wrong with the other side’s arguments, and does so in part through adjectives, while the bad versions all failed to do so.
And, in the legal world, as elsewhere, there are plenty of adjectives that are not fluff at all, but terms of art that have considerable power, at least when used correctly: reasonable, negligent, reckless, willful, intentional, inadmissible, speculative, harmless (error), reversible (error), dispositive, substantial, final, binding, plain (language), frivolous, etc.
Sometime an adjective or adverb is part of the guts and bones of a story. And even when they aren’t, they may provide critical or at least helpful information, the skin, hair, and muscles of the tale, as it were. They deserve careful attention and use, not hostility or even untoward skepticism.