Politics Magazine

Nouns and Verbs, Not Adjectives and Adverbs

Posted on the 08 June 2012 by Erictheblue

This interview, of Mary Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker, is funny, smart, a little offbeat, and a joy to read.  In maybe my favorite part, she comments:

I have been on both sides of the process, as a writer and as a query proofreader. Being edited sometimes felt like having my bones reset on a torture rack. I don’t ever want to do that to a writer, but I probably have from time to time. “What is this, the adverb police?” a writer who shall remain nameless once said in my earshot. “You betcha,” I wanted to say. I don’t remove every word ending in “ly,” but I like economy and concision.

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," advised E.B. White, in The Elements of Style.  "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."  Choosing a not-quite-right word, and then attempting to rescue it with modifiers--how much diffuse, dissolute, logorrheic sprawl is thus explained?  I would go farther.  A style that leans upon modifiers is frequently the calling card of a moral reprobate.  Here is a passage from a famous story by Hemingway called "Hills Like White Elephants."  A man is trying to persuade his pregnant traveling companion to have an abortion.

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said.  It's not really an operation at all.

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig.  It's really not anything.  It's just to let the air in."

The girl did not say anything.

"I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time.  They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural." 

Try reading it again, only leaving out all the -ly words, and see if your sense of a wheedler isn't displaced by something else.  The adverbs disguise the falsity.  Liars habitually fall back on them.


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