Attention, linguists! I've come across many a webpage that professes to present the "random musings" (or "thoughts") of a person, yet all of those thoughts appear to be strikingly nonrandom. In fact, all of them seem to be choice musings. The same applies to these "[number] random facts about me" "memes" that make their way around blogs and facebook pages. In other words, it seems "random" is currently in the process of becoming an auto-antonym.


A common piece of advice for people who want to write well is to use as few adjectives and adverbs as possible. Now consider the following passage from A.S. Byatt's Possession (pp. 284-85; emphasis in original):
In the morning, washing, he found traces of blood on his thighs. He had thought, the ultimate things, she did not know, and here was ancient proof. He stood, sponge in hand, and puzzled over her. Such delicate skills, such informed desire, and yet a virgin.
Informed desire. What a perfect word in a perfect place. The likes of Strunk and White would probably have told Mrs. Byatt to strike it out!

Sure, it is easier to clutter up texts with adjectives than with nouns or verbs as you can always throw in an infinite amount, but a wholesale condemnation of them seems misguided in a world in which objects have qualities. Adjectives are not the trans fats of language.

My advice on writing well is not to take any from people who advise against using entire parts of speech.


Acilius said...

Strunk and White, in the mood in which they cranked out their hideous little book, may well have given A. S. Byatt that kind of advice. But I doubt that William Strunk would have on his own, and I am quite certain that E. B. White would have admired her work. Strunk was a sensible man, White a very wise one. They seem to have had a dreadful influence on each other, however.

pj said...

Heh, apparently I claim that my blog is 'random musings on...' although, I must confess, I haven't read that description for years since I wrote it.

I suppose it highlights the fact that when I started the blog it really did represent some pretty ill-focused ramblings and rants (to preserve my OH from having to be subject to their full force) and only developed a theme and some, limited, coherence later.

LemmusLemmus said...


I wasn't aware you were a random muser when I was writing the post, but there you go.


pj said...

"OH" = other half, i.e. partner

LemmusLemmus said...

Ah, thanks.