We use a lot of adjectives these days. Just watching the news gives me grammatical shivers — and not in a good way. Donald Trump’s recent news conference was full of “You’re a bunch of lying bums,” which seems flimsy, a fast grasp at the nearest insult. Couldn’t he at least try a little alliteration now and then like, “You traitorous trolls,” just we know he can mix it up a bit?
I shouldn’t blame him. The man’s busy trying to form a cabinet. They may all turn out to be “traitorous trolls,” and giving him the gears at this point is pointless. I mean, the rest of us aren’t exactly “adjective free.”
It seems everything has an adjective these days, whether it’s describing food, as in “good food,” or warning us, as in “don’t eat the maggot-infested food.” Believe me, if you have maggot-infested food, you might think you need adjectives, but first you have to know where to look. That’s the great thing about nouns. At least you know where to look.
Now grammarians might argue this point, saying “maggot-infested” is pretty darned important. If a restaurant review says “The restaurant serves maggot-infested food,” you’re going to give that restaurant a pass. On the other hand, just as teacher can be made more accurate by saying “history teacher,” you can also turn “maggot-infested” from a compound adjective into a proper noun by saying “We serve maggoty meals.”
My point is, what we think are good adjectives are often nouns — not great ones, but at least we know where to look. Think of all the adjectives president elect Donald Trump has been throwing around these days, especially with his cabinet appointees. Do any of them actually describe or clarify these people?
Last night he used “good” twenty times and “fantastic” thirteen times. So far, he’s called every cabinet appointee “great,” which may or not be true. Here’s my real problem. When we call someone great, like Alexander the Great, that isn’t an adjective at all. History proved he was great, making it a proper noun.
Now, I know, just from the amount of usage, Trump thinks he’s got the market cornered on good adjectives. He’s managed to describe his Mexican border wall as “great,” “terrific,” “fantastic,” “wonderful,” “amazing” and “incredible,” all perfectly good adjectives, but not so great nouns.
Former Mexican president, Vicente Fox Quesada, on the other hand, forms his adjectives in a much more decisive way, saying, “I am not paying for that f**king wall.” English may not be his first language, but he’s still better than Trump at using descriptive nouns, as in “Neither myself not Mexico are going to pay for his racist monument.” Racist is a good descriptive noun.
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, once said “Delete the adjectives and you have the facts.” This is where Donald Trump runs into trouble. When asked one morning about his appointees, he said, “We’re going to have a great day. Great people coming. You’ll see. Great people.” This doesn’t exactly put them on the same level as Alexander the Great.
In a tweet the other night, Trump called his Secretary of Defense, “Mad Dog” Mattis a “general’s general,” the first time he’s used a proper noun to describe someone instead of an adjective. Many have called Mattis an unusual pick. Even the Obama administration gave Mattis a pass, describing him as “too belligerent around civilian authorities.” Mattis, by the way, comes by his “Mad Dog” name honestly, favoring no adjectives at all, like in “There are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”
Is it possible Mattis won’t survive Trump’s administration — not because he’s belligerent, but because he doesn’t use adjectives? Can a man who says “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” really be effective without using a single adjective?
We’ll certainly know more in the coming months. While we’re waiting, it wouldn’t hurt us to examine our own adjective use. Those of us in advertising aren’t exactly without sin. Consider this car ad that’s supposed to get our hearts pumping: “Get behind the wheel of the most impressive technology out there today. Feel the surge of high-performance engineering the way you’ve never felt it before.”
I don’t know why car manufacturers — or copywriters — are so crazy about compound adjectives. First, I’d like to know if there’s such a thing as “low- performance engineering.” Then I’d like to talk to someone and see if there’s such a thing as “unimpressive technology.”
The good news is, advertising has developed recently that allows us to avoid adjectives in the most effective way possible: We’ve stopped writing. I did a careful examination of the latest ads on adsoftheworld.com, and made an interesting discovery. Of all the Editor’s Picks, only two ads had any copy at all. I mean, if you really don’t want to do a swan dive into the quicksand, this is how to do it. Avoid copy altogether, and you’ll never have a jerk like me telling you the difference between a good adjective and a bad noun.
On the other hand, relying on clever visuals doesn’t exactly make you anybody’s favourite uncle, either. We’re inspired by words. Give us some insight, some point of reference, and we’ll buy a product. I mean, even “We serve maggoty meals,” is something (and there are actually restaurants in some parts of the world where maggots are a delicacy).
As a writer, I still believe in words. We may abuse them, but they still form an opinion. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes those words — adjectives or nouns — have a profound effect on consumers, like the awe-inspiring campaigns done by Paula Green back in 1963.
Why am I going back so far (and using a compound adjective)? Let’s look at one of Paula’s ads for Avis, a struggling rental company back then. Here’s how she and Helmet Krone drove Avis into a leading position (even when research said this campaign sucked):
“Avis is only №2 in rent a cars. So why go with us? We try harder. (When you’re not the biggest, you have to.) We just can’t afford dirty ash-trays. Or half-empty gas tanks. Or worn wipers. Or unwashed cars. Or low tires. Or anything less than seat-adjusters that adjust. Heaters that heat. Defrosters that defrost. Obviously, the thing we try hardest for is just to be nice. To start you out right with a new car, like a lively, super-torque Ford, and a pleasant smile. To know, say, where you get a good pastrami sandwich in Duluth. Why? Because we can’t afford to take you for granted. Go with us next time. The line at our counter is shorter.”
Just so you know, Paula only used two adjectives: “pleasant” and “lively.” The rest are proper noun descriptives. Still works wonderfully, don’t you think?
Got any ads you think make good use of proper nouns and adjectives? Let me know at: email@example.com
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.