I’m with the Reverend

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Well here’s something that I never thought I would blog about – Thought for the Day.

In case you don’t know on Radio 4’s Today programme (Monday to Saturday 6am to 9am) they have a thought for the day at ten minutes to eight. Thought for the day usually has a religious focus and picks up on something topical in the news.

Well last Thursday 1st October was no exception. The Rev. Angela Tilby was discussing the birth of the Supreme Court and her visit to the Ministry of Justices website. Her thought went on to discuss the over zealous use of adjectives in copy nowadays and that struck a real chord with me.

I’ve included her thought below. She gets round to religion at the end of the thought but what struck me was how the copy she discusses is the kind of copy we see and hear every day. For me there is nothing worse than the announcements on aeroplanes for flowery copy.

“Thank you for choosing to fly with us today.”    try   “Thank you for flying with us.”

We’d like to take this opportunity to welcome you on-board.”    try   “Good morning and welcome on-board.”

So my point is that shouldn’t we be cutting out all the unnecessary flowery prose and over-use of adjectives. Surely we can still get a great response without it? Maybe I’m preaching to the choir as you know your marketing and copy. You’ll say that good copy won’t stoop this low – that may be true but it doesn’t stop this kind of copy being published and us seeing it every day does it? And don’t even get me started on exclamation marks!!!!

I’m with the Rev. let’s take the blue pencil to those adjectives and cut them out.

Thought for the Day, 1 October 2009

The Rev. Angela Tilby

Today marks the birth of the Supreme Court which replaces the House of Lords as the highest court in the land, and ensures the total separation of the judiciary from the executive.

Trying to find out more led me to the Ministry of Justice’s website and to a list of that now vast ministry’s Strategic Objectives. I was struck by the number of adjectives in the list: ‘efficient’, ‘effective’ – that’s about civil and family justice; ‘effective’, ‘transparent’, ‘responsive’ that’s about criminal justice; ‘controlled’, ‘fair’ that’s about migration; ‘cohesive’, ’empowered’ and ‘active’, that’s about the kind of communities we hope for. And so on. Of course there are plenty of nouns and verbs as well, but it is arguably the adjectives which set the tone. I am still not quite sure what the new court will actually do. Adjectives advertise, and they have done that ever since the days of washes whiter. They brighten up the prose of officialdom. The website of Cambridge City Council trumpets the hope that Cambridge will be a ‘vibrant, socially-mixed, safe, convenient and an enjoyable place to live’. Heavens. Barely a noun or verb in sight. We are all infected by the pandemic of adjectives. I checked a recent sermon and I found armies of them dancing across the page, usually in threes – they are very community-minded.

Yet when I was at school we were encouraged to be a bit suspicious of adjectives. Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place. An adjective qualifies a noun or pronoun. They are not the important words like verbs: ‘being or doing words’, or nouns: ‘names of persons, places or things’. For all their flamboyance they don’t really tell you much. They may make you feel vital, vibrant and vigorous, but in fact their content is often vain and void. They represent aspirations, worthy ones, perhaps, but they don’t come with dates, times or budgets; they are wonderfully cheap because they float free of concrete reality. They soar like helium balloons, raising our sights, but not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air.

That’s why you don’t find many adjectives in scientific prose and when you do they are precise and exact. Nor do you find so many in the Bible and when you do they are firmly in their place as small words that qualify greater realities.

When the angels praise God instead of using three adjectives they use only one but repeat it, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’. Not many of the adjectives we sprinkle over our public prose would bear such repetition. And a salutary exercise, and one to bear in mind during the party conference season, would be to take a blue pencil and cut them all out. Then you will see what is really being said about people, places, things, deeds and actions.

copyright 2009 BBC 

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On 6 October 2009

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