‘Strunk!

My brilliant agent Mike Kabongo (a.k.a. onyxhawke) ran some Strunk up the flagpole this afternoon, but I couldn’t salute it.

Strunk: “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.” The second sentence is unquestionably true, but I never could wrap my head around the principle it’s meant to support. (The right noun can’t save the wrong adjective either; see below for some examples.)

I wrote in the comments:

I always enjoy alienating my friends, so I think I’ll argue this point.

I’m not crazy about “not” rules for writing. Writers should do what works. But this one in particular bothers me, possibly because of a B I got on a writing assignment in grad school. (The prof’s comment: “Your frequent use of adverbs reduces the gravity of your presentation.” My muttered response contained a verb, an adverb and a pronoun.)

But consider this old chestnut:

Red sky at night:
sailor’s delight.
Red sky at morning:
sailor take warning.

Take the adjective away and it’s not ungrammatical; it just doesn’t have any point.

I had more to say, but it was getting a little long for a comment, so I thought I’d continue here.

Take a sentence like this:

“Your cat is —- .”

It makes a huge difference what adjective (if any) fills that blank: consider the varying forces in this context of “ugly” / “orange” / “fuzzy” / “hairless” / “alive” / “dead”. The entire weight of that sentence rests on the predicate adjective.

Predicates don’t have to be adjectives, and (for that matter) nouns can be used as adjectives. (“Bob’s dog is dead” will have a different emotional force from “Your dog is dead”; “pit bull” is profoundly different than “Red Bull”.) That’s part of my bigger problem with Strunk here. He misconceives how language works, drawing a sharp line between categories of words that fundamentally and functionally overlap.

My view is that the writer sets out to make an impact on the reader using sound and sense. All other rules are just crayons in the box: use them if they’re useful; ignore them if they’re not.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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13 Responses to ‘Strunk!

  1. burger_eater says:

    Tools, Not Rules!

    • JE says:

      Kudos!

      Crunchily said (and all the essential meaning is there).

      • peadarog says:

        Re: Kudos!

        I agree. And furthermore, if a category of words exists, then it must be used.*

        *Yes, I am being provocative with my imperatives.

        • burger_eater says:

          Re: Kudos!

          Harumph!

          I still reject the word “whom.”

        • JE says:

          Re: Kudos!

          “I agree. And furthermore, if a category of words exists, then it must be used.*

          “*Yes, I am being provocative with my imperatives.”
          ___

          Not too provocative, I’d say. I can’t understand this impulse to anathematize certain classes of word, as if someone could magically become a good writer by, say, never using conjunctions. (“They’re weak! They represent compromise! And furthermore…”)

          [edited to add context]

          • peadarog says:

            Re: Kudos!

            Context definitely weakens writing. We should absorb all we need to know from your choice of words ;P

          • JE says:

            Re: Kudos!

            In fact, any expression or statement weakens one’s position by making it vulnerable to criticism. So the only really strong writers are the ones who never write at all, so… um…

            [trails off in silence–but in a strong determined way]

          • peadarog says:

            Re: Kudos!

            Exactly.

      • burger_eater says:

        Re: Kudos!

        I wish I could take credit for it, but my superpower is stealing good ideas from other people.

        • JE says:

          Re: Kudos!

          That’s the best superpower. Unfortunately, Peter Petrelli is going to get it on the season premiere of Heroes, at which point it will become officially No Fun.

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