Rand on Adjectives


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Rand on Adjectives

Here is a list of Rand quotes on the use of adjectives. (This was prompted by another discussion on OL: here.)

Atlas Shrugged, Part One / Chapter VI, p. 134. (Rearden is thinking):

He saw the article, "The Octopus," by Bertram Scudder, which was not an expression of ideas, but a bucket of slime emptied in public—an article that did not contain a single fact, not even an invented one, but poured a stream of sneers and adjectives in which nothing was clear except the filthy malice of denouncing without considering proof necessary.

(This was not really on adjective use per se, but I included it because it reminded me of a certain posting style in vogue elsewhere in O-Land. At least we know what Rand thought of that style.)

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2. Concept-Formation, p. 16:

Adjectives are concepts of attributes or of characteristics.

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 7. The Cognitive Role of Concepts, p. 72:

The requirements of cognition determine the objective criteria of conceptualization. They can be summed up best in the form of an epistemological "razor": concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity.

As to the optional area of concept-formation, it consists predominantly of subdivisions that denote subtle shades of meaning, such as adjectives which are almost, but not fully, synonymous. This area is the special province of literary artists: it represents a form of unit-economy that permits an enormous eloquence of expression (including emotional evocation). Most languages have words that have no single-word equivalent in other languages. But since words do have objective referents, such "optional" concepts of one language can be and are translated into another by means of descriptive phrases.

Here we see Rand basically saying that it is OK to use many adjectives if the referent is complicated like an emotion.

The Journals of Ayn Rand, 7 - Notes While Writing, February 18, 1940, p. 207. (Notes critiquing The Fountainhead):

Do not dialogue thoughts. Control adjectives—cut the weakening ones. Do not use adjectives unless they are different and illuminating. Don't go into over-detailed analyses of psychology—unless it's something new and illuminating to say. Don't give any details whatever—in sentences or thoughts—unless you have something new to say.

The Journals of Ayn Rand, 8 - The Moral Basis Of Individualism, p. 306:

An idea, simple or complex, cannot be held in half by two men, working together as a Siamese-twin unit or collective. A man cannot say in reference to his ideas: "I've only got the nouns and the adverbs—my brother Joe's got the verbs and the adjectives—we think kinda like a team."

Letters of Ayn Rand, Letters To Isabel Paterson, February 7, 1948, p. 188:

As I told you on the phone, I have been engaged in a wild orgy of weeding—not of devil's grass, but of adjectives. Or would you say it is the same thing? I have removed tons of them from the chapter [of Atlas Shrugged] I had left unfinished when I went East. I finished that chapter and have just now finished the next one. This is the first time I have come up for air.

I have had such a wonderful streak of writing that I did not dare interrupt it. I think my trip to New York caused it—and a great part of the credit is probably yours. It was your line about my book having to be written like a piece of sculpture that was extremely helpful to me. I can never learn anything unless I grasp the basic abstraction involved, and that was the line that made clear to me your objection to adjectives and repetitions. I don't think I will always agree with you on every particular application, but I think I do understand the principle.

The Art of Fiction, 8 - Style I. Depictions of Love, pp. 106-108:

One can gather that, on seeing each other for the first time, these two persons feel something violent for each other; at least the author's loud words convey that such was his intention. But he has not carried out his intention.

The reason is: floating abstractions. Take the first sentence. "Ah, strange and beautiful, the woman thought." What is strange and beautiful? Is it life, or love, or the man she sees? "How can I longer bear this joy intolerable, the music of this great song unpronounceable, the anguish of this glory unimaginable, which fills my life to bursting and which will not let me speak!" One does not know the joy of what, the music of what song, what glory; one can only gather that the woman is feeling an emotion of some kind.

Wolfe is trying to convey an emotion directly, primarily by means of adjectives. You can observe here the unsatisfactory result of having adjectives without nouns and specific content—i.e., attributes without entities. One cannot convey the quality of something without conveying what that something is.

It is a bromide among editors that bad writing can be judged by the number of adjectives used. This is not an absolute standard, but it is true that beginners often use too many adjectives. Why? Because it is the easiest and laziest method of describing something. When Wolfe wrote "joy intolerable," "song unpronounceable," and "glory unimaginable," he evidently felt that if he put in three of these adjectives, they would somehow do something. Properly speaking, one would do—or ten, if each said something that contributed to the sentence.

Observe also the archaism of putting the adjective last: "joy intolerable," "song unpronounceable," "glory unimaginable." This is permissible when the content warrants it (there is nothing that one can never do in writing, unless it is irrational). But here the author attempts to substitute form for content: he attempts to convey the importance of the moment by substituting the form of an exalted feeling for the content which he has not conveyed.

In style, form follows function. If you convey the content of a strong emotion you can use loud a form as you wish because the content will support it. Similarly, if you wonder whether an adjective is superfluous, remember that you can do anything if your content permits it. But never substitute words for meaning.

Also, the easiest thing on earth is to call something "a song" or to speak about "the music" of something, "music" always connoting strong emotion. "Love is like music" or "architecture is music" or "poetry is music"—you have seen this ad nauseam. If warranted by the content, and if done in an original manner, it is permissible to compare something to music. But do not attempt to convey exaltation simply by saying "the music of this great song." What song?

Someone once told me that no writer should ever say "indescribable"—if it is not describable, then do not describe it. Here the author spends a whole sentence on "song unpronounceable," "glory unimaginable." When an author says, "This is unutterable," he is confessing inadequacy. It can have no other meaning; unutterable to whom? An author should not intrude his personal writing problems on the reader; the reader is following the events of the story, not the mechanics of the author's mind.

"Oh magic moment that are so perfect, unknown, and inevitable." Why is the moment "perfect," "unknown," and "inevitable"? There is no reason for these adjectives, except that they vaguely suggest something exalted or important. And what is meant by "somehow we are fulfilled of you, oh time!"?

The author gives us the form of a sentence but no actual meaning; he is counting only on the connotations of the words. That is improper by the rules not only of literature, but of plain grammar.

Words are means of communication and must be used for their denotation. One of the beauties of a good literary style, as opposed to a dry synopsis, is that it combines clear denotation with the skillful use of connotation. But one can connote something only in relation to something. One cannot have connotations, which are relationships, without specifying any of the entities bearing these relationships.

I can't help but remember all the times I have read the word "unspeakable" in Rand's writing, or a construction like "I could say xxxxxxx, but I won't say it." This is an obvious rhetorical device for emphasis. Since she used it as much as she did, she was wrong to use a literal meaning as an argument against another author she didn't like.

What makes the same thing a rhetorical device in her writing, but an inadequacy or substituting form for content in Wolfe's writing?

Rand is consistent in one point: she pegs the use of adjectives to entities

The Art of Fiction, 10 - Particular Issues of Style, p. 155:

It is by means of the connotations of your comparisons that you can do the best objective slanted writing. By "objective," I mean that the reader's mind draws the conclusion—it is not you, the writer, who calls his attention to the fact that a certain person is ugly or undignified. To be objective, you have to show, not tell. You do it by selecting the connotations of your comparisons.

You can do the same with simple adjectives, which have definite connotations or shades of meaning. "The man was tall and slender" is an attractive description, whereas "He was tall, lanky, and gawky" is not. In description by means of comparisons, the field of selection is much wider, but the identical principle applies. You can describe the same quality as attractive or not according to what metaphors you use.

The Art of Nonfiction, 8 - Style, pp. 118-119:

Concretization or emotional appeal enters the issue of word-choice in the form of the connotation of words.

Clarity depends exclusively on the denotation—the exact meaning—of words. But given a particular thought that you want to express, the specific words you use can make a great difference, because in any language there are subtle distinctions of meaning among certain words. Those distinctions determine the connotations of your words; by means of these connotations you achieve the same purpose that you gain by touches of concretization in the choice of content.

For example, if you describe a woman as slender, the connotation is entirely different than if you describe her as lanky. While there is a little more than connotation involved here, the words "slender" and "lanky" both describe people who are thin. But the former connotes someone graceful and beautiful; the latter, someone gawky and awkward. Almost every adjective has a series of semi-synonyms of this kind, and you need to be careful about which one you select.

The Art of Nonfiction, 8 - Style, p. 124:

Don't #3: Don't use pejorative adjectives, sarcasm, or inappropriate humor.

In a first draft, it is sometimes valuable to express your feelings fully. For example, in a first draft, I have even written "abysmal bastards," knowing this would not go into the final version. I was indicating that I need to project strong indignation and to prove it.

If moral indignation is justified, then why are such words bad, stylistically? Because they are too easy. Unsupported expressions of emotion (e.g., insulting or pejorative adjectives) are arbitrary stylistically, and, philosophically, constitute emotionalism. They have the same stylistic effect as the kind of quarrel which consists of "Says you, says I"; they always weaken an article. Even if you give reasons for your strong language, understatement is usually more desirable.

When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. It is as if you were shouting at him. Observe that on stage—while there are situations in which nothing can substitute for a scream—in most of the famous dramatic scenes, it is the whispered, simple sentence that gives you chills. When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case.

Man, do I wish this advice were taken more often on Objectivist boards!

The Romanic Manifesto, 5. Basic Principles of Literature, p. 88:

A writer, like any other artist, must present an evaluative re-creation of reality, not merely assert his evaluations without any image of reality. In the field of characterization, one action is worth a thousand adjectives.

The Romanic Manifesto, 5. Basic Principles of Literature, p. 94-96:

Let us compare the literary style of two excerpts from two different novels, reproduced below. Both are descriptions of the same subject: New York City at night. Observe which one of them re-creates the visual reality of a specific scene, and which one deals with vague, emotional assertions and floating abstractions.

First excerpt:

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink.

Second excerpt:

That hour, that moment, and that place struck with a peerless co-incision upon the very heart of his own youth, the crest and zenith of his own desire. The city had never seemed as beautiful as it looked that night. For the first time he saw that New York was supremely, among the cities of the world, the city of the night. There had been achieved here a loveliness that was astounding and incomparable, a kind of modern beauty, inherent to its place and time, that no other place nor time could match. He realized suddenly that the beauty of other cities of the night—of Paris spread below one from the butte of Sacre-Coeur, in its vast, mysterious blossoms of nocturnal radiance; of London with its smoky nimbus of fogged light, which was so peculiarly thrilling because it was so vast, so lost in the illimitable—had each its special quality, so lovely and mysterious, but had yet produced no beauty that could equal this.

The first excerpt is by Mickey Spillane, from his novel One Lonely Night. The second excerpt is by Thomas Wolfe, from his novel The Web and the Rock. Both writers had to re-create a visual scene and convey a certain mood. Observe the difference in their methods. There is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane's description; he presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness. Wolfe does not describe the city; he does not give us a single characteristic visual detail. He asserts that the city is "beautiful," but does not tell us what makes it beautiful. Such words as "beautiful," "astounding," "incomparable," "thrilling," "lovely" are estimates; in the absence of any indication of what aroused these estimates, they are arbitrary assertions and meaningless generalities.

Spillane's style is reality-oriented and addressed to an objective psycho-epistemology: he provides the facts and expects the reader to react accordingly. Wolfe's style is emotion-oriented and addressed to a subjective psycho-epistemology: he expects the reader to accept emotions divorced from facts, and to accept them second-hand.

Spillane has to be read in full focus, because the reader's own mind has to estimate the given facts and evoke an appropriate emotion; if one reads him out of focus, one gets nothing—there are no loose, ready-made generalizations, no pre-digested emotions. If one reads Wolfe out of focus, one gets a vague, grandiloquent approximation, suggesting that he has said something important or uplifting; if one reads him in full focus, one sees that he has said nothing.

The basic conclusion I get from this is that Rand does not advocate cutting out adjectives as a rule, but cutting out adjectives that are not descriptive of obvious entities. In terms of Wolfe, there are entities present that Rand does not acknowledge, such as the person himself who is thinking and feeling (and who comes with a past of similar emotional states).

This actually would make a very interesting line of literary inquiry, but it goes beyond the scope of this post. Maybe in another discussion...

Michael

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  • 1 month later...

This is a good topic. I've always been ambivalent about Ayn Rand's perspective on adjectives. But where to start?

Do not dialogue thoughts. Control adjectives—cut the weakening ones. Do not use adjectives unless they are different and illuminating. Don't go into over-detailed analyses of psychology—unless it's something new and illuminating to say. Don't give any details whatever—in sentences or thoughts—unless you have something new to say.

I agree with 75% of that. Let's start with her second point: all creative writing should strive to be "different and illuminating." That should apply to the adjectives.

The part about "analyses of psychology" is a good point. Many writers do that, and few writers do it well. I would prefer (as a reader) to have less overt analysis, except from characters and then where it helps my understanding. But when characters spend too much time discussing why people behave like thus and so, and not enough time doing and acting, then I have a problem.

Her first and last point are stated too strictly. If phrased as guidelines rather than absolutes, I would agree. I assume that by "Do not dialogue thoughts," Rand meant, do not write characters' thoughts in sentences. Do not go overboard with interior monologues.

Let me venture a guess: we know Rand hated Shakespeare, and what is more typical of Shakespeare than the soliloquy? "To be or not to be..." et cetera.

In my judgment, 'dialoguing thoughts' is a writing device. The device can be over-used. It can be used badly. Often that happens. Mediocre writers use it, because it's easy. But that does not mean we should reject the device entirely. I think some characters are enhanced, when the writer lets us see their interior lives.

If you want an example, I will post one of the few characters from WÉI who has 'dialogued thoughts' of any length. Then you can decide if your understanding of Colonel Dostäm is enhanced by this method, or not.

But let's get away from the specific, and back to the general. My objection throughout is not to the principles Ayn Rand had, but to her manner of stating them. "Do not dialogue thoughts" gives me a direct order. It sounds exactly like the Classicism which Rand herself hated. What is worse, she did not give the reason why a writer should not 'dialogue thoughts' in the first place.

I can think of a reason right away: as a reader, I would prefer if that information were communicated in dialogue between characters. For one thing, that is more true to real experience. I can hear what people say in dialogue with me, but I cannot read their thoughts. For another: dialogue is more dynamic, more subtle. Dialogue involves the reader. And dialogue is much closer to action than a character's thoughts.

This discussion is entirely different from the tone of "Do not dialogue thoughts."

Rand's discussion of Thomas Wolfe also strikes me as far too strict. I have never read much Wolfe, except for an essay written in praise of Marshal McLuhan. My first impression of him was that he used beautiful language far out of proportion to what he was saying. That is true of the excerpt Rand quoted: the description was beautiful, but I agree, there was too much of it. Where I don't agree is with the tone of Rand's criticism.

There is an interesting inconsistency here in what Rand is saying. She criticises Wolfe for over-writing, but then she over-writes her criticism. Rand's analysis of why Wolfe shouldn't use too many adjectives is itself overly done. I'll stop here before I repeat Rand's mistake, and Wolfe's.

And I'll admit: because I read The Passion of Ayn Rand, my judgment here is over-critical of Rand. That comes, ironically enough, because I believe Rand was over-critical of Wolfe. Rand's statements on adjectives at the beginning of the discussion were far more reasonable.

I can only wonder if, in that legion of adjectives deleted from Atlas Shrugged, Rand hadn't gone too far. But unless we could see the original text, we could never know if Rand went too far, or just far enough.

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Michael Stuart Kelly quotes Ayn Rand saying, in The Art of Nonfiction:

When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. It is as if you were shouting at him. Observe that on stage—while there are situations in which nothing can substitute for a scream—in most of the famous dramatic scenes, it is the whispered, simple sentence that gives you chills. When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case.

I want to emphasize that one. (Not to shout, of course...) I think it is eloquent, and on target.

Bill P (Alfonso)

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The Art of Nonfiction, 8 - Style, p. 124:

When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. It is as if you were shouting at him. Observe that on stage—while there are situations in which nothing can substitute for a scream—in most of the famous dramatic scenes, it is the whispered, simple sentence that gives you chills. When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case.

Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary defined "positive" as: mistaken, at the top of one's voice. :rofl:

REB

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When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. It is as if you were shouting at him. Observe that on stage—while there are situations in which nothing can substitute for a scream—in most of the famous dramatic scenes, it is the whispered, simple sentence that gives you chills. When you overstate something, you disarm yourself. A man does not shout when he is sure of his case.

Ayn Rand was absolutely right about that.

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