It’s the adverbs that are the most insidiously racist. As usual.
The past month has been especially dark for the weaker modifier. While adjectives do the dirty work of telling it like it is, adverbs give cover to those who would soften language to weave a gentler story.
When George H.W. Bush’s funereal hagiographies recounted the 41st president’s attack ads featuring Willie Horton, the ads were always “racially charged” or “racially inflected.” Days earlier, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won a “racially charged” runoff against Democrat Mike Espy, which followed the “racially charged” gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia, with their “racially coded” messages. But rarely were those elections, comments, or individuals just “racist.”
Adjectives modify nouns — giving them form, shape, color. But adverbs modify verbs (she swung mightily), adjectives (like in all of the examples of the previous paragraph), or even other adverbs (he writes entirely too nerdily — as if that’s possible). Adverbs don’t always end in -ly, but they frequently do, making them easy to spot. And by modifying, they qualify whatever they’re modifying, giving it shade, style, nuance. Softening it.
That softening of language is what makes them so controversial. William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, at once the most loved and loathed language treatise in the canon, advised, “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.” Stephen King wrote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Strunk, White and King would all say that instead of adding an adverb, you should just pick a better, more precise verb.
Pedants love to slam Strunk and White for their inconsistency (they use adverbs as much as the next person), but those haters miss the point: that adverbs — not always, but often enough — weaken sentences because they inhibit concise writing. When writing is not as concise and precise as possible, its impact diminishes.
And with Bush and Hyde-Smith and Govs.-elect Ron DeSantis (Fla.) and Brian Kemp (Ga.), that diminished impact was kind of the point, wasn’t it? No one wants to call a recently dead president a racist, so instead the ads that got him elected were “racially inflected.” What was up with those ads? Oh, they were inflected. How were they inflected? Racially. That doesn’t sound nearly as bad as calling the ads — and by extension, their candidate — racist.
Of course this doesn’t mean that all adverbs are bad. We have only nine major parts of speech (quick: Can you name all nine? Without looking them up? You missed interjections, didn’t you?), so do we really want to discard one of them? I don’t regret a single adverb in this column, and I’ve used plenty.
But when a word can fit into multiple parts of speech, its power multiplies. “Racial” is and always will be an adjective. But “racist” works as both an adjective (that ad is racist) and a noun (he’s a racist). Each successive example is a little stronger, a little more dangerous.
The instinct to play it safe, to couch our words lightly, is understandable. But being precise and concise isn’t just more intellectually honest. It’s honest — period.
The Angry Grammarian looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and will appear biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions, and unparallel constructions to firstname.lastname@example.org.