Sir Ernest Gowers on adjectives and adverbs

Unwary writers are often advised to strip all the adverbs out of their prose, and sometimes all the adjectives as well. There is a name for the kind of people who give this advice: blockheads. Here, by contrast, is some good advice on the subject:

Cultivate the habit of reserving adjectives and adverbs to make your meaning more precise, and suspect those that you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. Use adjectives to denote kind rather than degree. By all means say an economic crisis or a military disaster, but think well before saying an acute crisis or a terrible disaster. Say if you like ‘The proposal met with noisy opposition and is in obvious danger of defeat’. But do not say ‘The proposal met with considerable opposition and is in real danger of defeat’. If that is all you want to say it is better to leave out the adjectives and say ‘The proposal met with opposition and is in danger of defeat’.

—Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words

My own comment:—

Both considerable and real are nullities: they occupy the place of adjectives of degree, but do not perform the duties, because they do not actually specify any degree. Opposition must be considerable, because inconsiderable opposition cannot produce any danger of defeat. Danger must be real, or it is no danger at all. Real, in particular, must stand in contrast to an expressed unreal or imaginary, or else it means nothing at all. Gowers himself, in the full text, goes into this in detail.

Since he is talking chiefly of official writing, however, the taste for null modifiers can, I think, be explained on genetic grounds. It comes of the civil servant’s taste for meiosis, the habitual desire not to use language that might be thought undiplomatic or inflammatory — that being a sin reserved for politicians. ‘Real danger’ then may be a code phrase for ‘grave and immediate danger’, and ‘considerable opposition’ may stand for ‘powerful and implacable opposition’. The difficulty is that when you are understating your case, you leave it an open question just how much you are understating it. It is then better to leave out the quantifiers entirely.

But really, that taste for understatement is only the grandfather of the deed; the father is simply force of habit. I know, for I have felt it myself (though not in any official capacity), the official’s hankering to make his language orotund and emollient by the use of stately rhythm. This style can hardly leave any substantive without a modifier. What the writer really wants to say is The proposal met with rumpty opposition and is in tumpty danger of defeat, because he is in the habit of aping the rhythmic and periodic style of his betters; but he has nothing of substance to put where his template has rumpty-tumpty.

The whole dread fortress of gobbledygook is made from a million such bricks of petty prosiness.

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