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Being an Adjective

Cooks in the Kitchen by John Cherry

The study of English syntax has a history going back to the late 17th century. Some fine chefs have worked in the grammatical kitchen since then; but it is a thin and adulterated broth that gets served up today, spoiled by too many cooks.

The traditional presentation of the principles of English grammar—rooted in a confused kind of naïve metaphysics, as I noted in “Being a Noun”—was in need of a radical revision long before Darwin’s era. But while biology since 1859 has seen a conceptual revolution that all science journalists are well aware of, modern linguistic understanding of English grammar simply has not been reaching the general public. The traditional twaddle is still taught, in a more confused form, diluted and polluted by a thousand incompetent interpreters. (Closing down most of the blogs discussing and popularizing English grammar would create a net improvement.)

Take the notion “adjective,” a topic particularly prone to mangling by the twaddle-repeaters. All over the web you can read that “an adjective is a word that describes a noun” (use Google to search for that phrase and you’ll see what I mean). One grammar blog I looked at recently (I won’t name names or link links, you can find it if you want to) says:

Adjectives can be so chatty

Adjectives are a little gossipy. They are the words that are always telling you things about other words. One can only hope that it’s truthful stuff.

Telling you things about other words? Writers who use attributive adjectives are trying to characterize things, not nouns. Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” describes the night as dark and stormy—not the word night.

The amateur twaddle-repeaters have misunderstood the syntactic claim that an attributive adjective modifies a noun, confusing the word-to-word syntactic relation “modifier of” with the word-to-world notion of describing.

How could anyone make a blunder this obvious? You must be saying to yourself: Surely no one really confuses the word with the thing (or the “part of speech” with the category of things). But you’re wrong: that very confusion is ubiquitous, even among college graduates. Jon Stewart told an admiring crowd of 2004 graduands at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, that it made no sense for Bush to have a “war on terror” because “it’s not even a noun” (see this Language Log post).

Terror is indeed not a noun, it’s a psychological state; but the word terror is, of course, a noun.

Was Stewart making an isolated stupid blunder? I thought so at first, but in a sense I was being unfair. He was just tracking the standard twaddle. Look at what Grammar Girl (not by any means the worst of the professional grammar blogs) says about the count/noncount distinction:

A count noun is just something you can count. I’m looking at my desk and I see books, pens, and M&M’s. I can count all those things, so they are count nouns.

Nouns, just something you can count. The confusion really is there: Nouns are things; verbs are actions (hence the “art is a verb” nonsense); adjectives describe nouns.

This, I’m afraid, is the sort of confused drivel that people come away with after being taught in our schools and colleges—if they get any grammar at all.

If biology books and biologists’ blogs regularly asserted (with all of Grammar Girl’s chirpy confidence) that whales are fish, and the public just accepted that, knowledgeable scientists would be horrified. In my field, such things actually happen.

Post-Darwinian biology has managed to influence the culture at large very substantially. Linguistics, unfortunately, has not. The study of the syntactic structure of the world’s most important language has been reduced to the parroting of prohibitory maxims and definitions that don’t even make sense.

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