Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Death to modifiers!

One of my writers has just offered the following words of ‘wisdom’.

If the banks have neither the inclination (nor the resources) to fund further ship acquisitions, future market developments could surprise in unexpected ways.
Great. I love this kind of stuff: things that surprise in unexpected ways, as opposed to things that surprise in expected – and therefore unsurprising – ways. It demonstrates how writers write in a way that sounds good but means nothing.

In fact, this sentence means so little that I had to delete half the paragraph because what’s the point of warning about surprises down the road if you don’t know what they might be? If you’re charging good money for your analysis, then you need to do better than that. It’s like putting up a roadsign with the word “Warning!” on it and nothing else.

Anyway, that’s a simple edit and one that wouldn’t elude any proofreader who was paying attention. However, it shows the way in which writers use words that feel good but mean nothing. And the easiest way they make nonsense of their writing is through modifiers – effectively adjectives and adverbs.

At the back of every proofreader’s and sub-editor’s mind is one question that will ask itself whenever an adjective presents itself: “What other kind could it be?”Ask yourself, are these adjectives strictly necessary?

Dishonest thief
Untrustworthy politician
Angry sub-editor

Adjectives are often added to nouns when those nouns don’t need modifying. Their meaning is already clear, either from the noun itself or from the context, such as when one of my container team constantly refers to the container fleet in a report about container shipping. 

Of course it’s the container fleet. What other kind could it be?

Moral: Adjectives are wonderful things. Don’t devalue the currency by over-using them.

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