Judging from the lamentations that fill my inbox every week, you’d think the English language is in a constant state of degradation. But I’m happy to report that things are finally looking up for adjectives, which are staging a triumphant comeback over their weaker adverbial counterparts.
To be specific, two adjectives: racist and sexist.
In a 2018 column, I documented the crime of using phrases like racially charged, racially coded, and racially inflected, all of which are euphemisms for racist. The adjective racist is more concise and precise than phrases that use the weaker adverb. Many word stylists (Strunk and White, Stephen King, and Mark Twain, to name a few) recommend minimizing adverb use, since adjectives (or better nouns and verbs) are frequently more accurate. But the racist charge still feels explosive, so news writers are often hesitant to use it. Yet when we don’t call out racism in the most direct way possible, we perpetuate it — which is a racist act unto itself.
The bad news about the announcement that Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate is that it unleashed a torrent of racist and sexist attacks on the California senator. The good news: This time, the media were actually much better about calling out those attacks as racist and sexist.
In the last week, news articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, the Boston Globe, CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, Al Jazeera, and plenty of others used the words racist and/or sexist to describe the jokes, statements, conspiracy theories, and insinuations about Harris. For many readers, the reaction was, well, duh. But it’s a significant change from just two years ago, when outlets like the New York Times, in its coverage of George H.W. Bush’s death, referred to the former president’s “racially charged” Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis; the Washington Post, covering Donald Trump’s description of “s--thole countries,” called his words “racially incendiary” and “racially charged”; and NPR described newly minted Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s campaign as “racially charged.” Racist is the better word choice — grammatically and otherwise.
Now adjectives are finally getting their revenge.
The trend holds across news outlets. Corpora are databases used by linguists to track how words and phrases are used, and the NOW Corpus — which stands for News on the Web — “contains 10.7 billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present.” A deep dive into the corpus on the adjective racist and the adverb racially reveals that while each word’s usage frequency followed similar trends over the last decade, there was a big shift from 2018 to 2020.
Given the international social reckoning with race this summer, we’d expect a big increase in the use of both terms. But in the last two years, the use of racist has jumped at a much higher rate than the use of racially: In 2018, NOW found roughly 12 instances of the adverb racially in news articles each day. By 2020, that number had increased to 27 — a factor of 2.25. But over that same time period, use of racist jumped from 92 times a day to 317 — a factor of almost 3.5. Compare that with 2011-14, when use of each term increased at roughly the same rate.
This strongly suggests that over the last two years, more and more writers have abandoned phrases like racially charged and replaced them with the single adjective racist.
By calling racism racist, we break one of the strands that self-perpetuates structural racism. And that’s the kind of victory that no weak-ass adverb can diminish.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and morphemes to firstname.lastname@example.org.