"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Donald Trump’s Adjectives

May 6th, 2016 by

Sometimes, adjectives can be a most interesting marker in a writer’s style. Many writers cut them, but they are like dandelions. We can’t cut them all, and when we find them, we are able to detect a certain bias in the writer’s expression.

As is well known concerning adjectives, we are taught in elementary school that they are descriptive. This is silly, though. College writing teachers, following Ezra Pound’s advice to the young Ernest Hemingway, teach quite the opposite: Kill your adjectives and adverbs, we say. They sap worthy nouns and verbs of their power. Don’t write “totally wrong,” as though it is possible to be more wrong than wrong. Just type “wrong” and get it over with. Don’t write “delicious corn” when “corn” will do.

Adjectives and Politics
When we examine the adjectives used by our new, presumptive Republican nominee (I know. I didn’t cut the adjectives there. But given the complications with delegates, they seem to be needed), the case is more complicated. Indeed, our presumptive has used adjectives, but he doesn’t always pair them with nouns. Indeed, we have heard a running string of a few, spare adjectives as long as the presumptive’s winning streak–in fact, we have heard them take the place of real policy. Instead of a description of what the presumptive plans to do to build his wall to keep out imigrants, for example, we have heard that he has a plan that “will be great, a great plan.” To that degree, he has followed his elementary school teachers’ rhetoric well.

However, if the adjectives in play are not noteworthy, they are playground worthy. They include a string of words that seem to have worked to his favor with his audience. They include “great,” as in “I have a plan and a great policy that is going to be just great.” As well, “huge” and “excellent” have served him equally well. What is most interesting in all of this is that when talking positively about himself, his policies, or his friends, the adjectives are not paired with nouns. They are used as subject compliments. The pairing with nouns, especially with proper nouns, thereby draining their power, has happened when the presumptive talks about his opponents.

The Power of the Negative Turned Benevolent
Here, the string of adjectives seems more colorful and used to a more stinging effect than even statistics, which, incidentally, the presumptive never seems to need. Negative adjectives used to great effect include “ugly,” “short” as in Rubio (that always stung me on the fourth grade playground also), and “sweaty,” also as in Rubio. For his opponents’ wives, tweeting pictures has worked better than adjectives.

Something Aristotelian lurks in this adjectival complexity, something that I would term–especially to his supporters–a benevolent ethos. Aristotle noted the persuasive power of a good character, especially when an audience senses that the speaker has only the hearers’ best interest in mind. When our presumptive assures his supporters that his plan will be “great,” well, what more can one say, especially when he has identified with the pain his hearers know.

We might note in concluding that the presumptive nominee was certainly smart to follow his elementary school teachers advise and use direct, descriptive adjectives. He created a new variation he perhaps picked up in college by not cutting them when they concerned his enemies. Indeed, the presumptive’s adjectives have served him well in seeking the Republican nomination. In the coming months, as he attacks the larger nation, we will see if he can add a few new adjectives to his arsenal that will prove to be even more effective.

This is not a prophecy, but I expect that “liar” or “lying” and “feminist” to take on new power alongside the proper nouns of the coming presidential election.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Comments


Comment by Tim Riter on May 6, 2016 at 6:54 pm

Tom, this is a delightful use of linguistics applied to political discourse.

Comment by Tom on May 6, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Thanks, Tim.

Comment by Ana P. Rose on May 8, 2016 at 12:30 pm

This is refreshing to read and quite interesting regarding adjectives. I feel most writers, especially beginners or aspiring writers, are more afraid of “what not to do” in their writing instead of what can we do and how and when. Hopefully the last part makes sense. Thank you for this!

Comment by Tom on May 9, 2016 at 6:52 pm

Thank you, Ana. This was especially fun to write for some reason. I hope I am doing my patriotic duty in pointing these things out. 🙂

Comment by Carla McGill on May 8, 2016 at 4:16 pm

A fun post, Tom! Is he a lying liar? A girly feminist? Speech patterns are certainly telling, aren’t they?

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