Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Over-Adjectivalization of English?
"Yet when it comes to race, Obama's first year has shown us again and again that race does not matter in America the way it used to. We've come more than a mere long way - we're almost there" ~ John McWhorter
From the quote above, you might think this post is about race. Well, it is only in a roundabout way. Rather, this post is about the words we use when discussing tricky, complicated subjects. Does any phrase strike you as odd in the above quote? Perhaps a word string that requires a second glance just to make sure you read it right? If you selected "mere long way," you and I have a similar filter for grammatical oddities. Here we have two adjectives followed by a noun (mere + long + way), or is it one adjective followed by a noun phrase (mere + long way)? Either the way is long and mere or the long way is mere. To be fair to Mr. McWhorter, who writes for a living (while I just write for a hobby), the contrasting, multi-functional phrase achieves its desired effect. It makes the reader stop and think how exactly far have Americans come in terms of race? What words best describe our progress?
Race is one of those subjects that does not lend itself to simple explanations. It is a tricky, complicated idea that involves biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics--just to name a few. As a consequence, simple phrases and sentence constructions never quite seem adequate. Complicated subjects require complicated expressions. In this way, "mere long way" seems more poetic than descriptive, but poetry can sometimes create more confusion than understanding. Just ask Ovid, who found himself banished to Tomis on the Black Sea for a few lines about love.
There is a grammar lesson in all of this, I swear. How many adjectives can be strung together and still be "grammatical"? Well, as many as you like, provided that they are all "coordinate" (have relatively similar meanings, for more on this idea see here). Here's an example:
Mr. Q was the biggest, fastest, strongest, smartest, most excellent human being on the planet.
Every adjective relates to Mr. Q's superlative nature in some way. But throw in the word "weakest" anywhere, and we start asking questions. How can he be the fastest but also the weakest? The same principle applies to "long" and "mere," two contrasting expressions, in the same adjective string. How can the way be "mere" but also "long?" Can a "long way" be "mere?"
To his credit, Mr. McWhorter's poetry seems to be catching on. Frank Gardner used the same expression to describe the progress being made by Afghanistan's fledgling army (see here). However, the expression does appear in the same sentence with the phrase, "like a newborn calf struggling to stand up on its feet." Ahh, and they say English majors do nothing but sit and read poetry all day! Well, someone has to figure out these crazy, convoluted simple concepts.