Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.

The following examples of ambiguous syntax (also found in Wretched Writing) are likewise humorous, but probably unintentionally so:

Now a glob of burnt plastic, Saatchi reportedly spent $900,000 for the piece. (Art & Antiques, 2004)

After years of being lost under a pile of dust, Walter P. Stanley, left, found all the old records of the Bangor Lions Club. (Bangor Daily News, 1978)

She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco. (Danielle Steel, Star)

Unless you have the originals, you’ll have to take the Petrases’ word for it that these are authentic. Normally I would, but in a section on “dangerously dated words” they cite a line from Dracula (“Van Helsing rushed into the room, ejaculating furiously”) that I cannot find in the original text.

I don’t have a zero-tolerance policy towards danglers. As I’ve noted before (‘A hovering dangling modifier’), the construction is old and well-established in literature. But there’s a danger the ambiguity will create absurd or confusing imagery, as in the first two cases above, so it’s something for writers and editors to look out for.

Speaking of which. Wretched Writing contains many amusing examples of writers messing up and editors dropping the ball, but the prose commenting on these examples leaves something to be desired. For instance: it describes clauses, ineptly, as “little snippets of complete ideas that appear in the middle of sentences”. Didn’t they look it up?

The book also succumbs to Muphry’s Law, being at times badly proofread. When you’ve finished enjoying Tom Clancy’s “The sun rose promptly at dawn”, below, take a look at the second quotation and you’ll see what I mean. The presentation is, to borrow from Fanthorpe, “horribly uncustomary”:

wretched writing - a compendium of crimes against the english language, by ross petras and kathryn petras

For more like this (I mean the funny parts), see my older post on ‘howling ambiguities.’

22 Responses to Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    “Van Helsing rushed into the room, ejaculating furiously”

    Gee Stan, I snorted my coffee this morning. Funny how this word has evolved over the years :)


  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good morning (in the USA), Stan! This thought and question occurred to me as I read your recent post: How would you teach students to understand and to accept the craft used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in this quote: “My faith is gone!” (from the short story, Young Goodman Brown)? I can’t recall if the initial letter in the word, faith, is capitalized, but I recall from my classroom teaching days that I gleefully told my students that Hawthorne deliberately specialized in ambiguity but that ambiguity written or spoken by us would probably not be acceptable. Many high school students are quick to challenge teachers who present exceptions to the rules, but my students did not challenge Hawthorne or me in this instance. The examples you gave in your post of misplaced modifiers are humorous. That humor probably would have been the hook for my gifted students. As for the list of adjectives in your selected passage, many English teachers might sort through that passage to explain to students how such repetitive use of adjectives can be effective when integrated in effective narration. However, I’m not the expert in this matter. I’m merely taking a break from my work to engage in conversation with you. Thanks for the opportunity to think and to enjoy language. (smile)

  3. John Cowan says:

    The only instance of that root in Dracula is this, from Dr. Seward’s diary: “As he did so he started back, and I could hear his ejaculation, “Mein Gott!” as it was smothered in his throat.”

  4. Stan says:

    WWW: Since that example is dubious, here’s a similar, genuine one from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

    Vinetta: Humour is often a good hook for teaching; it draws learners’ interest, helps them enjoy a lesson, and can also help them remember key educational points. The value of ambiguity, I find, varies depending on whether it’s used in poetry (where it’s generally seen as good) or prose (where’s it’s often seen as problematic, a sign of unclarity). It also shifts according to whether it’s deployed by an amateur or a skilled writer, since the latter is more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

    John: Aye; I ran various searches of parts of key words and found nothing resembling the line. It makes me wonder where they got it, if not in Stoker.

    • Roger says:

      Re humour is often a good hook . . . So is parody.
      Parody brings out the contours of a style, which makes it a form
      of lit. crit. And of course parody can also be funny.

  5. B Devlin says:

    Please Sir, what is the proof-reading error in the second quotation?

  6. astraya says:

    I think the Petrases switched their funny-bones off before they read and selected that passage. Let me guess that ‘Galaxy 666’ is deliberately exaggerated piece of writing of some kind, compared to, say, medical specialist’s report, in which case such use of adjectives would be utterly inappropriate.

  7. Stan says:

    B Devlin: The first four lines of the quoted material, from “Brilliant” to “obviousness”, are not part of the quotation (Brunner’s line) at all. But they are presented as though they were.

    astraya: Yes, I suspect it was deliberate too, though I’d need to read more of Fanthorpe’s story (or other work) to be more sure of his intended tone.

  8. John Cowan says:

    I suspect the Van Helsing line was simply misremembered, and nobody bothered to take sixty seconds (modulo network delays) to check.

    In this age when verifying references is trivial, it amazes me how people go on writing emails and posting comments without taking the very slight extra effort to do so.

  9. Roger says:

    Re “Wretched Writing” — James Miller asked whether bad writing might be necessary. He cited Theodore Adorno as an example.
    I took it to mean that abstract thought requires abstract expression
    and can’t be fitted into a minimalist plain language. But I should think Miller’s question could be answered by trying a conversion from the original style to the other, abstract to plain, and testing
    for damage. Miller’s contrary to Adorno is of course G. Orwell.
    His article is in Lingua Franca Dec/Jan 2000, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?”.

  10. John Cowan says:

    In one of Leo Rosten’s Mr. Kaplan stories (which are set in an EFL class), the hero writes to his uncle: “If your eye falls on a bargain, please pick it up.” When the rest of the class protests this outrage to English, he tells them that his uncle has a glass eye.

    • Roger says:

      I’d guess that danglers impede communication so little that their presence has to be pointed out, otherwise audiences either don’t notice them or else compensate for them with little or no effort.
      The real howlers are good for a laugh because less frequent.

  11. B Devlin says:

    Thanks for that, Stan. I half-thought you were going for the tautology of ‘logical obviousness’. On another tack completely, have you ever met a rural Irishman who could ask a straight question? I was in the chippy the other night and a man went up to the counter and said, “You wouldn’t give me a fish supper?” This struck me as typical, ie the use of a question form which suggests the asker is expecting a negative response and is therefore preparing himself for disappointment, eg “you wouldn;t have the lend of a shovel, would you?” Using it in a commercial transaction, however, where the chipshop owner has obviously opened his shop that night with the express purpose of selling fish suppers (and other delicacies), seemed rather odd or quaint to me.

  12. Stan says:

    Roger: Thanks for the Miller reference. A lot of danglers are low-impact, noticed generally only by editors and other people in the habit of looking out for them. Only sometimes are they so ambiguous or ludicrous as to cause a serious problem, though I wouldn’t say it’s their infrequency that makes them good for a laugh…

    John: I like that twist. Wretched Writing has a whole section on eyes as the apparent subject and object of highly improbable actions, e.g., “Their hostess firmly put an end to the morbid discussion by collecting the ladies’ eyes” (Nicholas Blake, 1941).

    B Devlin: That kind of indirectness could be classified as a politeness strategy; colloquial Irish speech has its own styles of it of course. I suppose it’s a bit less common in scenarios where there’s very little likelihood of refusal.

  13. languagehat says:

    Unless you have the originals, you’ll have to take the Petrases’ word for it that these are authentic.

    I would never take a peever’s word for anything. As a copyeditor who tries to verify quoted passages, I have learned that quotes are very often screwed up even by people who are simply trying to reproduce them; people who have an axe to grind are entirely untrustworthy. Allegedly quoted sentences purporting to demonstrate some “grammatical error” should be treated with exactly the same degree of skepticism as “kids say the darndest things” compilations. (Attributing something to the Bangor Daily News is on the same level as “My brother-in-law’s friend said…”)

    • Stan says:

      Hat: I’d like to assume some good faith on the part of writers, but you are right to be sceptical. Given the remarkable extent to which quotations are mangled and misattributed, it makes sense to check their veracity, and perhaps especially those shared with an agenda. I’m still puzzled by the Stoker example: that it seems plucked from thin air, and that it wasn’t fact-checked en route to publication.

      • languagehat says:

        I regret to tell you that almost nothing is fact-checked en route to publication anymore. I complained about a wretched Cambridge book at LH and a CUP poohbah actually showed up in the thread to say haughtily that such things were the author’s responsibility, as if she’d never heard of the idea that publishers should do anything other than print what the author sends them.

  14. bob says:

    Poor Tom Clancy.

    “The sun rose at dawn.” is tautological and pointless. “The sun rose promptly at dawn.” is obviously a joke.

    • Stan says:

      Bob: That’s possible, but it’s not obviously the case. The same writer gave us: “The die was now cast, if not yet thrown.”

      • Nicholas Walker says:

        “The die was now cast, if not yet thrown” seems clearly humourous to me, especially in the context of a military novel. Cast can mean “to throw” but also “to shape in a mould”, so that sentence is playful, not nonsensical. The quote “alea jacta est”, the die is cast, that has been attributed to Julius Caesar would provide the humour there.

      • Stan says:

        You may well be right about that, Nicholas.

  15. Nicholas Walker says:

    Oops, “nonsensical” should have been “redundant” in my quote above.

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