Monday, February 2, 2009

The problem with adjectives

Gretchen Rubin says:

I realized the importance of characterization when I eavesdropped on a few conversations between my 3-year-old and her grandmother.

My daughter: “Can I please have some ice cream?” . . .
My mother-in-law: “OK, but you had a cookie earlier, so I’m just going to give you a little bowl.”
My daughter: “No, no, I want a big bowl! Not a little bit.”

Mother-in-law: “Tonight you’re going to go to bed nice and early.”
Daughter: “No, no, no! Not early. I want to stay up late!”

Had my mother-in-law said, “I’m giving you a big scoop” or “We’re letting you stay up late,” my daughter would have accepted that characterization instead of protesting. Same bowl of ice cream, same bedtime, different perception.

And this isn’t just true of children. . . . It’s helpful to “watch the characterizations” when we’re speaking to other people, and it’s also important when we’re characterizing things for ourselves. . . .

Often, I’ve found that I can characterize something in a way that’s more positive but just as truthful. For example, “That meal was very filling” instead of “That meal was very heavy.” Or “The play had a lot of great moments” instead of “The third act of the play was boring.” Sometimes, of course, I’m trying to make a specific critical point, and that’s fine, but sometimes remembering to “watch the characterization” allows me to make my point in a less negative way—in particular, to myself.
So it seems like her basic conclusion — though she doesn't put it like this — is that we should adjust our use of language to affect other people's thoughts. It also seems like the main way to do that is through adjectives (along with adverbs, which are very similar).

But I think we should consider whether the adjective game is a game we should be playing at all. Why not drop out of the game altogether?

Adjectives often mean surprisingly little when you stop and think about them. But they hold enormous potential for manipulating people.

It's easy to accuse someone of, say, being "racist" anytime they talk about race. Or to call someone "selfish" for doing just about anything — there's arguably some selfish component in any human behavior. It's hard to prove or disprove it; meanwhile, the person accused of being "racist" or "selfish" or what-have-you is nagged by self-doubt.

So I've resolved to be unmoved by adjective labels. Most of what needs to be said should be said through nouns and verbs. It's not that adjectives and adverbs are useless — of course not. But they're like a sauce or condiment. They add flavor, but they're not the main ingredient in your meal. Or, if they do become the main ingredient, something has gone wrong.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." -- Mark Twain

Reducing the number of adjectives in one's prose can markedly improve one's style. Adverbs even more.

This has to do, as you say, with not labeling people, things, events. It's especially important for children, and especially for negative labels. Telling a child, "You're lazy," or, "They're lazy," is poisonous and can last a lifetime. (Telling the child positive things, like "You're strong," is good if it's believable in context.) Parents shouldn't label the child's world, or his self, for him, but should give him the chance to discover it without prejudice.

Also notice the benefits of using "and" instead of "but" when possible, especially when refusing things. "I understand you're not sleepy, and your bedtime is 8:00," instead of "I understand you're not sleepy, but your bedtime is 8:00." "But" separates, "and" joins.