What Mark Twain said about adjectives

I don’t mean to pick on any journalist for writing a bad sentence. God knows I’m aware of the pressure of the newsroom deadline, and what acts of contortion must be performed before an inky metal plate can roll across a sheet of newsprint.

And I don’t mean to single out the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones who is, most days, an enjoyable and readable theater critic.

But for all who write, or read, or like words, or use words, or are in some small way familiar with words, this lead sentence from yesterday’s “On the Town” section is a doozy that cannot be allowed to pass unhooted at:

Shorn of its massive set, its $450 tickets and its overwhelming Broadway hubris, the national touring version of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” now plays like a moderately amusing wing-and-drop entertainment with a few choice chunks of red comedic meat for loyal Brooks fans who are willing to indulge a strangely chilly show that’s cheerfully unwilling to uproot itself from down-and-dirty gags rooted in much-admired parts of the human anatomy.

I’ve colored the adverbs and adjectives red for you. By my reckoning, 27 of that sentence’s 74 words are descriptors. Let alone the appalling length for a lead sentence (…any sentence!),  giving a third of the real estate to adjectives and adverbs is just plain not-so-very good. It doesn’t take the wisdom of Mark Twain (who said “When you catch an adjective, kill it!”) to know that any writer who bangs out a sentence like this is going to wake up the next day and see that sentence and feel regret. Like, hangover-after-the-society-ball regret.

It’s enough to leave a reader feeling:

Of course, the problem at the other extreme is not using language at all.

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