Death to adjectives

Too many adjectives and adverbs spoil academic broth, scholar argues. Paul Jump reports

August 29, 2013

Is there something unforgivably, infuriatingly obfuscatory about the unrestrained use of adjectives and adverbs?

Many celebrated stylists think so. Crime writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week, observed in his 10 rules of writing that using an adverb was almost always a “mortal sin”. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, dismisses most adverbs and adjectives as “clutter”, while Mark Twain exhorted readers to “kill” any adjectives they could catch.

Zinsser and Twain are quoted by Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University Camden, in support of his view that the greater the number of adjectives and adverbs in academic writing, the harder it is to read.

Dr Okulicz-Kozaryn has published a paper in the journal Scientometrics that analyses adjectival and adverbial density in about 1,000 papers published between 2000 and 2010 from across the disciplines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper, “Cluttered writing: Adjectives and adverbs in academia”, finds that social science papers contain the highest density, followed by humanities and history. Natural science and mathematics contain the lowest frequency, followed by medicine and business and economics.

The difference between the social and the natural sciences is about 15 per cent.

“Is there a reason that a social scientist cannot write as clearly as a natural scientist?” the paper asks.

Dr Okulicz-Kozaryn told Times Higher Education that the analysis had been inspired by his own reading of academic papers, which suggested that political science in particular was “full of meaningless words that only add ornament and subtract the meaning”.

He said the use of adjectives and adverbs also inflated article lengths, making it even harder for academics to keep up with the literature – a serious problem when the volume of new papers being published doubles every 15 years.

Dr Okulicz-Kozaryn dismissed the suggestion that the complexity of issues addressed by social scientists might demand more adjectives and adverbs. But he said he had no good explanation for the profusion of “fancy, meaningless language” in the discipline and aimed to investigate further.

He said there were other ways to assess readability, such as considering sentence length or the average size of words, but “I just wanted to signal the problem and show a possible pattern across the disciplines”.

However, he admitted that he had not analysed the frequency of adjectives and adverbs in his own writing.

“Maybe I am no better after all…But I’d bet money I am better than average [for] social scientists,” he said insouciantly.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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