Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Better Than Good. And Even Best.

Mark Twain urged caution about choosing the right adjective. He said "A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation." If you listen to how people talk, you know what he means. The same can be said of how a writer writes: check out his adjectives. For me, that's one of the most difficult parts of writing (hardest? stressful? laborious?) And too many times I find myself drifting back toward the old stand-by's "good" and "great" and "fast" and "tall." All those vague and tired words. (Are "vague" and "tired" vague and tired? I don't know.)

So it was with relief that I came across, while enjoying a bowl of Shredded Wheat, some marvelous adjectives in a recent New Yorker magazine. "They sure have a way with adjectives," I thought. "I should share these." So, here they are. They were used in the magazine's capsule reviews of "Recitals." I don't know why I was looking in Recitals. I'm not interested in going to one. Most of them are painfully long. And I don't even have plans to go to New York. Shows you how Shredded Wheat can dull the mind.

First there was an "admired violinist" from Japan at Zankel Hall. I wonder who admired him.
Then there was "The superb Baroque ensemble" at Columbia University. I firmly believe that a Baroque ensemble must be "superb" at the minimum to hold an audience for more than six minutes.
Next was the "magisterial pianist"who has thrilled audiences for more than four decades. He's at Carnegie. Is he "magisterial" in the way he plays? Or maybe how he walks or how he dresses. In a cape, perhaps.
Their imagination began to wane here, because the next act was a "superb young British foursome" doing their thing at Alice Tully Hall. I assume "superb" is the minimum price of entry into these pages.
After that came "the renowned group"that performed music by 3 composers I've never heard of, also at Alice Tully Hall. Again, renowned where? New York? London? Zaire?
And finally we have "three distinguished keyboard colleagues" appearing with "the musical major-domo" of something or other. I'm not sure what a "major-domo" is, but it's got to be worth seeing.

You've got to admit, those are better choices of descriptors than "interesting" or "fine" or "really good," even surpassing "popular" and "cool." All you need is the right word to fire the public's interest. Again, to quote Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between  lightning and a lightning bug." Ladies and gentlemen, choose your words.


  1. Very insightful and perspicacious of you, Gerald. Not to mention informative and amusing. It certainly demonstrates the value in having a friend so intelligent and observant, from whom to learn at every opportune instance.

    Jim Coyne

  2. Show us don't snow us, is that one of the writing rules? But then when you are the New Yorker, you can be flamboyant with descriptors. You always have your tongue in cheek and I find your writing amusing and insightful (or inciteful).