By Steven Lubet
I'll say something soon enough about the content of the comment, but just now I want to focus on the quality of the rhetoric.
Lose the adjectives, Mr. Powers. They make it hard to take you seriously.
You see, the most evocative words in the English language are nouns and verbs. I realize that might seem counterintuitive. Plenty of politicians obviously think adjectives are the key to conjuring up a blockbusting mental image that will demonize the opposition and somehow swing the election.
But the fact is that florid adjectives tend to convey judgments--which makes them inherently argumentative--which in turn makes them seem more or less undependable. William Powers' string of adjectives actually tells us more about him than it does about Hillary--and it certainly isn't going to change anybody's mind.
Nouns and verbs, on the other hand, introduce not merely a belief about something, but rather the thing itself. They can help you paint a mental image so that every reader (or listener) can immediately picture exactly what you are saying.
Suppose, for example, that I called Pat Buchanan "brutal." That would probably reinforce your feelings if you already dislike him, or it could make you indignant if you are one of his supporters. Either way, it is unlikely to tell you anything that you don't already know.
But what if I pointed out instead that he believes gays deserve to have AIDS, and he wants doctors to go to jail for performing abortions, even to save a woman's life. That tells you something about his character that the judgmental adjective--"brutal"--could never convey. Of course, you still might disagree with me about the candidate but at least you'd know why.
It works the same way in everyday life. Suppose someone told you that an automobile was "ugly." The adjective presents an esthetic judgment. Depending upon the speaker and the circumstances, you might accept the characterization or you might not. Adding more adjectives doesn't help: The car was ugly. And decrepit. And damaged. Adverbs don't do much either: The car was really, incredibly ugly. Modifiers, it turns out, tend to be just plain short on intrinsic, descriptive power. They offer conclusions, but not the bases for the conclusions.
Now suppose the same person gave you a description with no adjectives at all: The automobile's paint peeled off the doors. Its hood was so rusted you could see right through to the engine. The windshield displayed a spiderweb of fracture lines. The tail pipe hung low, fastened by a coat hanger. The rear bumper sagged toward the ground. One fender was missing and another was replaced by a mismatched part from a different model. These nouns and verbs (assisted by an occasional participle) tell the whole story--that car was a disaster.
So when one politician uses nothing but adjectives to take a nasty swipe at an opponent, you can suspect right away that the jab has more flash than substance.
Now, back to content: Chairman Powers, that was ugly.
Steven Lubet is Professor of Law at Northwestern University.
Chicago Tribune, July 27, 2000