On Writing

On the life of an adjective

Adjectives have always been out there, mobs of them pressing on the outside walls, their faces against the windows, their shoulders at the doors. They just want to be inside close to all the nouns that have gathered indoors over the years.

Adjectives can spur furious debate: people can perceive this dress as white and gold or blue and black. Tumblr

Technically the adjective is a word we throw at a noun or add to a noun in order, we say, to name one of its attributes. The adjective is also a much-favoured method of expressing bias by reducing the meaning of a noun to its epithet: an illegal asylum seeker, a brave soldier, a rotten politician, a sly real estate agent, a woolly thinker, a lonely heart and an impulsive teenager all met in a bar one afternoon to discuss how they might re-distribute their epithets without reducing themselves even further.

The ensuing negotiations left shattered rejected adjectives all over the greasy floor of the dim bar as each unshackled noun stumbled into the daylight un-policed, unaccompanied, unannounced and new to the world.

In a 2015 review of John Updike’s selected poems, Dan Chiasson noted that in Updike’s poems,

Everywhere the ingenious adjective turns up to alter its noun, where ‘adjective’ stands for the imagination and ‘noun’ stands for reality prior to aesthetic transformation. This formula is so consistent as to render its local applications interchangeable. An ‘unchurched’ grandma in a ‘foursquare’ house might as well be a foursquare grandma in an unchurched house.

Does an adjective make a noun particular by naming one of its attributes, or does it overshadow the noun with a confusing shade? Does it draw all the attention to itself, or is it, as Updike might have it, a chance to show off one’s ingenuity? When Wallace Stevens wrote, in his poem On the Plain Sense of Things,

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold …

Did he squib on the task of the poet with that blank adjective or did he choose the only adjective possible in the circumstances, or was he inviting us to attach our own adjective to a noun that oddly enough is usually employed to work as an adjective?

Later in the poem he seems to suggest that a loss of adjectives is a symptom of a loss of imagination. The next adjective after “blank” is “great” in this brief poem, an adjective repeated three times over five stanzas as if the poems itself is overwhelmed by something outside it that is fantastic and inevitable. Perhaps one test of an adjective’s worth is the sense we have of whether the poet or the writer was forced by necessity to use this particular epithet, one required for the sake of attaching specificity to a noun.

In the novel, Purity (2015), Jonathan Franzen’s character Charles reads out a sentence in an assignment by a creative writing student: “We were doing lines as long and fat as milk-shake straws”.

Charles asks where the flaw is in this simile, where it might be less than water-tight. Can we spot the weakness? Clever Pip asks in reply, “Is there a difference between milk-shake straws and other straws?” Charles congratulates her on exposing “the hobgoblin of spurious specificity”, itself an irresistibly descriptive phrase that seems to describe a whole adjectival disease. So, specificity can go too far and adjectives be too ingenious. It is not a simple matter to find a way for nouns and adjectives to usefully co-exist. Their serial monogamy can dog the rhythms and meanings of whole paragraphs and stanzas.

Some languages apparently do not have adjectives. Hausa, Korean, Telugu, Hua and Bembra are languages that manage to describe the world without resorting to adjectives. Nouns and verbs are the only universal syntactical categories in human languages. However, when Maxine Kumin opens her elegy to a friend (How it is) with, “A month after your death I wear your blue jacket”, the adjective seems essential. I cannot imagine that line doing its real work without that adjective, and I become pleased all over again that English has so many.

Those resilient adjectives we left spreadeagled in the bar did not stay on the floor long. Soon they were on their unsteady feet, leaning in their natural way on whatever noun was within reach; or they were slinking out the front door ready to latch on to any passing unaccompanied noun. They are so companionable, acting so much like old friends even when you meet them for the first time. They are couplers.

Some of them though do manage to become something like nouns themselves. The lonely, the brave, and a couple of others in this lot have been able to fake it long enough to be convincing. Their theory is that most adjectives are in fact nouns not yet grown fully into their identity. They are like children who must hold hands with a parent figure in order to get anywhere or be anyone.

Two big children on a tiny buzzing motor bike race by my window as I write. They seem to be adjectives driving a little noun to extreme exhaustion.

If these thoughts seem to be less coherent than they should be, it is because these paragraphs were interrupted by someone telling me our car had a flat tyre an hour ago. It was true. The tyre was flat. It was a good description of what had happened to the tyre. We taught ourselves how to change the tyre and how to use the air compressor, and it was dusty work, and that is perhaps the best kind of work.