language, other topics, politics

Alas, Poor Adjective!

Pity the poor adjective. It gets no respect. And yet, it does essential work.


Its troubles start with its etymology. A “verb” is literally a “word” (Latin verbum). So it takes for itself the whole provenance of language. We think of verbs as the stuff that makes language go – they do or act. Hence Dr. Phil warns his guests: “I’m going to put some verbs in my sentences,” i.e., “Beware! Life-changing talk is about to happen (after these commercials, of course)!” Attention must be paid to the verb.


Verbs are masculine, because they do things, and that is masculine. Italian has a proverb: Words are feminine, deeds masculine. The saying expresses double contempt: for the do-nothing word and for femininity. At least a verb, despite the proverb, does something, so its purely linguistic status is not totally contemptible.


Nouns come second: they are names (Latin nomen). So while they are not considered the all-important doers of language, at least they identify who or what, is doing what to whom. Nouns and verbs together are often thought of as the underpinnings of language; all else is frippery, feminine adornment. That naturally would include the adjective.


Adjectives have always gotten a raw deal from the cognoscenti: they are mere adornments to the real stuff, eschewed by the serious writer and left for the nonserious, the chroniclers of domestic life (and you know who they are). It was an article of faith for a long time (before there were computers which could count) that female writers dispensed adjectives freely; men, the real writers, parsimoniously doled out the nouns and verbs. Hence women could not be serious writers, because serious writers had no use for adjectives. And writers who made use of adjectives were ipso facto not serious. And, too, they were women (or no better than women, wimpy males).


Etymologically too adjectives get a raw deal. Neither words nor names, adjective is itself adjectival, modifying verbum: They are words “thrown at” (ad-iectivus) nouns, interfering with the noun’s important work. Because they are understood as trivial, they are feminine per se and signifiers of their users’ despised femininity.


(Today, having done a little counting with the help of our devices, we know that these stereotypes don’t hold: there is no direct correlation between the gender of a speaker or writer and any preponderance of adjectives in her or his writing.)


But the unkindest coup de grace aimed at the unfortunate adjective is recent: Donald Trump is a hyper-enthusiastic adjective user, in Tweets and elsewhere. They are the indispensable glue of Trumpstyle.


That is interesting, first because Trump wants the world to think of him as super-macho, and needs his actions and his rhetoric to create and enhance that identification. But the adjective is feminine.


This superficial contradiction makes a lot of sense. People who are unsure of their sexuality often act consciously to convey the sexual identity they long to have. So unmanly men bluster, they bully, they swagger. But underneath the cloak of hypermachismo, in those areas of behavior over which they have less conscious awareness or control, you find not even neutrality but blatantly feminine behavior. Trump’s gestures are feminine, like his rather high-pitched voice and typically feminine intonation contours, as well as other paralinguistic effects. His facial expressions (especially the pouting and the Mona Lisa smirk) are read more readily as feminine, or (we might say) feminisms: ways to look superfemale. So it should not surprise anyone that Trump makes heavy use of adjectives in his 140 (or 280) character communiqués. If his major aim is to communicate the most important ideas in the world, strong reliance on adjectives is not the most effective way to do so. His dependence on adjectives makes him a less effective communicator than he undoubtedly likes to believe.


As so often with this president, the more closely you look at his adjective usage, the stranger it gets. He uses adjectives idiosyncratically, unlike other users of English, almost as a foreign tongue. And he uses them not exactly as an integral part of the communication he is engaging in with his audience, but to comment on it and encourage a particular response. But very often Trump’s reader/listener finds that beneath the adjectival flurry all is still – there is no meaning at all.


Oddly, Trump loves to use adjectives that are about visual experience even when (as often) the feeling he is trying to convey relates to one or more of the other senses:


The most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you ever saw,


when we usually gauge our response to chocolate cake based on taste: the most delicious piece of chocolate cake you ever ate.


We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, … all across our land,


where the least important thing about infrastructure is how shiny it is. We might expect instead adjectives like strong or lasting. Perhaps he is waxing poetically patriotic and attempting to connect his own rhetoric with a couple of our anthems, appropriately or not:


Our alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears. (“America the Beautiful”);

…In the twilight’s last gleaming (The Star-Spangled Banner”).


At times Trump’s adjective is shockingly out of place in a document produced by the chief executive of a secular state:


The sacred investigative process.


He likes pairs of adjectives, which may clash in tone and function:


Beautiful clean coal.


Beautiful is strange: coal may have its virtues, but as most of us understand both coal and beauty, the latter is not one of them. More problematic still is Trump’s joining of beautiful and clean. Quite apart from problems of truth value, these two adjectives are vastly different in their semantics. Beautiful plays to sentiment: it tugs at the emotions. Therefore it is not and cannot be specifically investigated or fact-checked. If Trump (or anyone) finds something beautiful, it is beautiful to him. But clean is different: it has a hard-edged, specific and verifiable sense: it has truth functionality and can be tested. If you call something “clean,” I can challenge you to prove it. (Try that with “coal.”)


Arguably, by juxtaposing “beautiful” with “clean,” the president is trying to have his cake (beautiful or not) and eat it. He hopes the part of “beautiful” he wants his audience to absorb (the emotional grab and nontestability) will merge in our minds with the part of “clean” that is useful to him (its seemingly scientific falsifiability), so that we will be forced to accept the whole.


This is deeply and scarily manipulative. We can safely call it propaganda.


There are other unusual aspects of Trump’s romance with the adjective, for instance his well-known passion for the superlative degree, appropriate or not: he and his are always the best, the most, the greatest, the largest. The existence of superlatives is a hidden benefit of Trump’s obsession with adjectives: only an adjective is capable of comparison. One might, though, note in passing that as potent as a superlative may appear superficially, its ultimate effect (especially if it is used with ludicrous frequency) is, perhaps paradoxically, to weaken the statement in which it occurs. The greatest invites the hearer to ask: Oh yeah? Compared to what?


But Trump can’t help himself, and often steps on what could have been his best lines. In a way his dependence on superlatives is ironic. It would seem that superlatives are antihedges: they strengthen the effects of assertions. If this were always the case, Trump’s use of superlatives (and related antihedge types) would make him a powerful orator. But antihedges cannot be relied on to provide the desired one-two punch. All too often, their effect is to weaken assertions, simply because the speaker’s very need to rely on the power of the antihedge raises hearers’ suspicions that he might be trying to manipulate or pull a fast one.


Trump uses adjectives (and other parts of speech) to create an emotional climax. His Tweets often end with an adjective paired with an intensive discourse marker (especially so). He seems especially fond of expressing these emotional judgments in the form of fragments: So terribly sad. Disgraceful. Perhaps he sees fragments as Hemingwayesquely macho, brusquely brief. But they are apt to be heard and read as the attempts of a child too young to have mastered the rudiments of syntax.


OK, the man doesn’t have a firm grip on English prose style. So what? Well, a couple of things:


For one thing, his obsession with adjectives suggests an internal conflict between the man he is and the man he wishes he were.


For another, his fondness for linking emotional and precise adjectives graphically shows him as the wannabe manipulator that he is.


His overuse of visual adjectives to replace those expressing other senses tells us that he is less complex a thinker (not necessarily the smartest man in the world) than he might hope to be, and suggests a distorted world-view. Likewise, his overuse of the superlative ending suggests a man who wants to appear invulnerable, but knows he is weak.


So even though a despised part of speech may seem unworthy of serious attention, it is not. Even, or especially, idiosyncratic linguistic choices are responsive to interpretation. Nothing in language is meaningless or without function.