When Parts of Speech Offend! A modest defense

Last week, Pope Francis threw adjectives under the bus, saying, that he is “allergic” to qualifiers and that “we have forgotten the strength of nouns.” The Pope believes adjectives divide and create hierarchies among Christians and seems dubious about them altogether.

Image by Greg Waskovich from Pixabay

He’s not wrong. Adjectives are judgey, imposing their perspective on abstract things. But they also make those things un-abstract. A black dog is different than a yellow dog than a waggy dog than a rabid dog.

Adjectives can certainly be abused (or abusive) but they also delineate the factual from the artistic. Ernest Hemingway, that great culler of adjectives, knew their power. He cut them so ruthlessly because of their potency (too much perhaps?), giving the chosen ones greater impact. For example, here’s Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls contemplating the delights of absinthe:

“There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafés, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cité, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.” [emphasis added]

On one hand, the Pope’s war on adjectives indicates that power. Why bother frowning on something that doesn’t matter? On the other hand, there are so many things to turn one’s Pontifical attention to other than entire parts of speech. Challenge adjectives, critique their abuse or necessity in specific circumstances, but don’t go calling out a hit on them entirely. They already have enough to do.

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