I’m not the right person to make this complaint, considering how prolix my blog entries are, how hastily overwritten they can be. (I’m thinking of bringing a few of my entries into a class to show how an edit can make analytic prose sharper and shorter.)
However, after finishing some grading on papers this week, I think that I should assign an analytic essay where all adjectives and adverbs are banned from use. This is the #1 place where students who are almost good analytic writers get into trouble. Either they use a word that is almost the right one but not quite, just enough off the mark enough to be annoying, or they use an intensifier that is way out of proportion to the claim being made.
The thing that depresses me is that a decent amount of scholarly prose in the humanities has the same issues, most especially the misuse of disproportionate intensifiers.
You are unbelievably right.
How about just banning “very” and “really” as adverbs? (my personal pet peeves) You don’t just get that problem with writing, though; I had a piano teacher once dare me to write a song that didn’t have a minor pentatonic solo. That was really very embarassing.
As for myself, I’d be thrilled if my students knew what adjectives and adverbs were in the first place. Then we could move on to comma splices, fused sentences, and the grotesque overuse of the semicolon (to which the current generations of undergraduates appears hopelessly addicted). I’m actually thinking of incorporating brief grammar and composition lessons into my history survey — 10 minutes a week on one or another of my pet peeves before we get into the actual material. My fear is that before long, we’d be diagramming sentences instead of discussing the origins of the cold war…
My advisor, Al Craig, gave me back a short paper once early in my graduate career, with a paragraph heavily marked up and a note on the side pointing out that my adverbs were just hedging and did not advance any actual points. Taking all of them out did no damage to the argument and improved the writing immensely.
The bane of my existence is the exclamation point. If your writing isn’t forceful, adding an exclamation point won’t make it forceful! If it is forceful, most of the time a period works just fine!
Or else you could do as I do, and avoid intensifiers. I tend to think that well-placed intensifiers can give prose an arch-feeling, but I’m skeptical of my ability to place them well.
The bane of a math major’s existence is getting hooked on “thus” and “so” and “then” and “therefore,” which are all words we get in the habit of inserting in proofs to give them a certain momentum, but serve no purpose. I’m surprised whenever I read through old proofs how useless all those words are.
One reason that you’ll often find extreneous modifiers in student writing is that we have to meet word minimums. As absurd as that sounds, I sometimes find that I’m well below the minimum, though I’m pretty happy with my paper. For Professors whom I know are not picky about such things, I’ll leave it alone. There are other cases when I know that having a significantly shorter paper will be a problem. So I pad. Eventually, you just get in the habit of padding. Sad, but true.
I’ve always found the idea of enforcing word minimums with precision to be one of the sillier pedagogical things a professor could do. I mean, ok, if you say a paper should be 5-7 pages and you get a 1 page paper, that’s not right. But otherwise…
How about just banning â€œveryâ€
I’d settle for being able to convince people that “incredibly” is not a synonym of “very.”
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. . . . In general . . .it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.” –E. B. White
I would instantly become a better writer if you could somehow modify my keyboard to take away the ability to write parentheses and emdashes. A long time ago I started using them more often in order to try to create a more realistic, conversational flow in my writing and keep it from being boxed up in the standard structure of an English sentence. Now, when I get in full flow, I realize that most of my clogged-up prose is no longer capable of seeing the standard structure of an English sentence over the horizon on a clear day.
Also: I had a mildly disturbing moment the other day when I realized what was weird about the speech of a fellow student I know. She speaks in paper-ese. That is, she has incorporated certain habits of language that everyone uses when trying to pad out uninteresting papers to meet a minimum length requirement *into her daily speech*, without realizing that these things, when expressed in spoken rather than written form, tend to make you sound like a lunatic. The most obvious example is the breathless list of synonymous words or phrases. Something’s not just “shocking”, it’s “shocking, appalling, disgusting, wretched, horrifying”. It’s not just “a bad idea”, it’s “a bad idea, a false step, a foolish turning, a dangerous precedent”. We don’t just need to “stand against it”, we need to “stand against it, speak to just how wrong it is, rally all like-minded people in opposition”. It becomes wearying to listen to her after a while; it’s like one of Winston Churchill’s speeches times ten, only with the subject matter being student council elections rather than impending war. It’s really too much misplaced intensity for my stomach to handle.
I’ve since made a note to myself that “thesauring”, as I call it, is a very dangerous habit for people with big vocabularies with a tendency toward hyperbole, and have tried to eliminate it from my writing as much as I possibly can.
My graduate advisor, who does not speak like that, does write like that, with a list of synonymous gerunds, and I did pick up the habit a bit.
“Thesauring” is related to “slender yellow fruit syndrome,” in which the writer goes to extreme lengths not to repeat himself. The name comes from a sample mini-paragraph:
“I offered John an apple or a banana. He chose the slender yellow fruit.”
I’ve seen this kind of thing in friends’ papers as well as my own.
One of my grad school professors handed out a short list of grammatical and rhetorical pet peeves at the beginning of the semester. He then just marked the number of the peeve at the site of the infraction. He also advocated a complete ban on adverbs in analytic writing.
As for near misses, I think Mark Twain said it best: “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.”
I think that I should assign an analytic essay where all adjectives and adverbs are banned from use.
How would you phrase this ban? Taken literally, it would be a bit like banning the letter E. Your students would fall back on circumlocutions like “essay of analysis”, which is presumably not what you have in mind.
I was kidding, Vance.
I dunno, banning ‘e’ might bring about satisfying analysis. On occasion, naturally, and not in all applications.