Wednesday, 23 March 2011

'If you catch an adjective, kill it.'

Today, we scraped, filled and repainted just less than half the front face of the cabin, and then I managed an hour or two on my proofreading course, which has moved on to looking at the consequences of our changes/corrections - meaning, for example, that if we replace a phrase which has been inadvertently omitted by the typesetter in a page proof, and this results in an extra line which might have a run-on effect (on page numbering, citations, references etc) to the end of the chapter or even, in extreme circumstances, the end of the book, then it's worth looking for a phrase or word which could be deleted without adversely affecting the text, thus 'saving a line' (the above is my effort - in this context, I reckon 'to American shores' is redundant).

The course book points out that the commonest deletion is an unnecessary adjective. This would have pleased Mark Twain, who famously (and wisely) said, 'If you catch an adjective, kill it.' The quotation will be familiar, but the context is less well known. In 1880, four years after Tom Sawyer, Twain received a letter from a twelve-year-old boy in Dallas, Texas named D.W. Bowser. The boy had been put up to it by his teacher. He enclosed his English theme and a report card for the pervious term, and he and Twain entered into a two-year correspondence. The famous quote is from the author's first letter to Bowser:-

"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."
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