On Being Modified

Like many who fancy themselves writers, I’m extremely wordy. Specifically, I’m a wanton aficionado of what English teachers of old taught us to call “modifiers” — that is, adverbs and adjectives. You’ll note that just those first two sentences contain three adjectives and an adverb, which is a really low modifier-per-sentence ratio by my standards, and evidence of considerable restraint on my part.

This is because one of my few new year’s resolutions is to cut down, not on sweets or meats (though I’m sure I should), but on modifiers. Like an alcoholic with his alcohol, a writer can build up a resistance to modifiers, requiring more and more to induce that compositional buzz that lets him think he’s being clever or even, God help us, literary. I think I need an intervention.

Here’s an example from a recent post of mine:

Trump’s guerilla war on the will of the people depends on a cynical exploitation of the inherently anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College – that uniquely American institution that interposes a sort of temporary robot legislature between the electorate and their choice of a president.

There are no less than eight modifiers in that sentence, most of them cute or clever but unnecessary, many of them larded on like, well, lard, to make the writer seem erudite or impassioned. Each is a small bully, a little bludgeon to the head of the reader who, the writer fears, might not otherwise get it. And one of the hardest things for a writer to learn is to trust the reader. Trust her to be smart, to know what you’re saying and feel what she should if you’ve said it clearly. Too many modifiers are an emblem of a writer’s distrust, and elicit the reader’s distrust in return.

Writers and readers alike come by this distrust honestly. We swim in a sea of modifiers. Advertising is all modifiers (New! Improved!), and in today’s hyperventilated media environment any noun or verb seems naked and pathetic without a companion adjective or adverb. It starts in infancy, when no sooner does a child learn the referent in reality for a particular noun than she’s required to know whether it’s red or blue, big or small.

And when you grow up, there are phrases like “social media” and its loathsome offspring, “social distancing.” Neither of those nouns (ok, one’s a gerund) needs that adjective to make its meaning clearer, and one could argue that its addition confuses things, makes one wonder what one’s missed that requires that prissy adjective to distinguish among, one supposes, different categories of media, or different ways humans might space themselves out to avoid spreading germs, when in fact there are no communications media, and no modes of interpersonal separation, that aren’t inherently “social.” There’s an adjective for that: redundant.

There I go again, with that “inherently,” one of those words learned for the SAT and never let go of, because it could only be used by someone who took and did well on the SAT to begin with and the writer certainly wants to convey that impression. It’s a close relative of “essentially,” a weasel word if ever there was one, because if I say you’re “essentially” a jerk or that the death penalty is “essentially” immoral, I’ve left room to claim later that I never said you were inherently a jerk or that the death penalty is inherently immoral (though of course it is, and you may well be). They should both go.

In fact, there ought to be a word for that class of adjectives, like “esoteric” or “erudite,” whose usage is intended  to say as much about the writer as about whatever noun it’s modifying. Narcissintonyms?

Then there’s the category of adjectives that, in the era of Trump and Covid (forever joined in our memories), have been so overused as modifiers of our “times” that they should be banned outright for a few years. These include the hyperbolic “unprecedented,” the waffly “uncertain,” and the effete, understated “challenging.”

I’m so far gone I need modifiers for my modifiers. Please help.

Many modifiers are used simply to show off, like driving around in a Porsche with the top down, or Instagram posts from your last trip to Portofino. There are more modest tools for the same job, but why? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Some of my current favorites include “mendacious” (where “lying” or “untruthful” would serve as well), that all-purpose narcissintonym “esoteric” (did ever a word’s meaning and its intended effect conjoin so perfectly?), “feckless” (pulling serious rank on “irresponsible”), and “quintessential” (never restrict yourself to three syllables where four will convey the very same thing). Add your own.

Of course, some modifiers have a legitimate distinguishing function (like those two). When you refer to a law or a court, you really should say whether you mean a state law or a federal court, or no one will know how worried they should be. Likewise, that familiar old workaday noun “war” elicits lots more attention when preceded by the bluntly factual “nuclear.” Young love is even more poignant than love alone, and casual sex even more titillating or sad (as the case may be) than sex by itself. Or oneself.

But in general, I remain righteously indignant at the overzealous use of unnecessary, surplus, phonily-erudite, pretentious, often redundant modifiers. (That’s a ten-pack.)

I for one am going to try to stop using them so much. Like this.

One thought on “On Being Modified

  1. Interesting. The rule I learned is, if you need an adverb with that verb, there’s probably a more specific verb. Instead of “walked softly,” you say “crept.” I suppose it would also apply to nouns and adjectives.

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