Preposterous adjectives

Which part of language carries the most judgement? Adjectives, according to Simon Heffer, editor of the Daily Telegraph.

As a Clean Language enthusiast I’ve thought a lot about how to be as non-judgemental as possible in questioning, and as a news reporter and editor I was passionate about sticking to the facts as far as possible. And this was an an interesting reminder of a simple “how to”.

Heffer was speaking at the Great Style Debate this week. He was talking about how he did his own writing – and how he avoided the kind of howlers which would have his newsroom in stitches.

After writing his first draft, he said, he would “stick his head under the tap” and then read it again. At this point, he would take out as many adjectives as possible.

“Adjectives generally are a crutch… nouns do the job with economy, perfectly well. Strip adjectives out if you want to make sure it’s objective,” he said.

Heffer argued that there were two types of adjectives – factual ones like colours and sizes, and judgemental ones. And he deems some of the judgemental adjectives (such as “bubbly”) as completely preposterous – and therefore includes them on the Telegraph’s banned words list.

I agree with Heffer that if we’re looking for objectivity, it’s worth paying attention to our adjectives. But I think we also need to look up, step back, and examine the metaphors we use to shape our writing, and our thinking.

For example, Heffer said the Telegraph had “not readers, but customers” while David Marsh from the Guardian referred to his “audience”.

What difference does it make? Think about it: as you read this blog, are you a reader, a customer or a member of an audience? Or would you prefer another role – such as critic, commentator or sharer?

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