The Sunday Edition

A papal injunction against adjectives and adverbs - Michael's essay

To crime novelist Elmore Leonard, their use is ‘a mortal sin.’ Graham Greene said they were ‘beastly.’ They have been called ‘the lazy tool of a weak mind.’ Drugs? Pornography? Vodka shots? None of the above. These and other illustrious writers were talking about adverbs and adjectives. Horror-meister Stephen King warned, ‘the adverb is not your friend. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ The critics have been joined by no less than Pope Francis.
Pope Francis blesses worshipers at the end of the weekly general audience on May 8, 2019 at St. Peter's square in the Vatican. Recently the Pope decried the use of adjectives and qualifiers when describing Christianity in a speech given to the Vatican's communications team. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
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To crime novelist Elmore Leonard, their use is "a mortal sin." 

Graham Greene said they were "beastly." 

They have been called "the lazy tool of a weak mind."

Drugs? Pornography? Vodka shots? None of the above. These and other illustrious writers were talking about adverbs and adjectives.

Horror-meister Stephen King has warned — cryptically? — "the adverb is not your friend. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Writers Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene and Stephen King have all railed against the overuse of adverbs. (Vince Bucci/National Portrait Gallery/Shane Leonard)

If that artillery weren't heavy enough, the critics have been joined by no less than Pope Francis, Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy. 

His thoughts were not entombed in an encyclical, and there was no Bull.

His Holiness was giving a speech to the Vatican communications team. We pause here for a moment to reflect.

The very fact of a Vatican communications team gives one a slightly dislocated feeling.

I don't expect some aging monk with a quill pen fighting off nosy journalists, but a complete full-blooded team sounds like the West Wing of the White House without the craziness.

The Pope did not mince his words, first going after the use of adjectives.

"I am allergic to those words," he intoned. He apparently breaks out in hives when he hears the word, "authentic," as in "authentic Christians."

"We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs and we have forgotten the strength of nouns. Why say authentically Christian? The mere fact of the noun Christian is strong; it is an adjective noun, yes, but it is a noun."

I would give my recording of Irish Tenor John McCormack singing "Ave Maria" to have seen the Vatican scribes reacting to the Pope's jeremiad.

A nun waits for the arrival of Pope Francis for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

They must have muttered to each other something like "sta scherzando" — "is he kidding?".

No, the Holy Father was not kidding. He went on.

"For the church communication is a mission. One of the things you must not do is advertising. You must not behave like human business that tries to attract more people. To use a technical word: you must not proselytize; it is not Christian to proselytize."

At which point one of the flacks must have said to a colleague: "Dove sta andando con le cose?" ("Where is he going with this stuff?")

I guess when your head is overstuffed with tendentious issues such as same-sex marriage and wayward bishops, it eases things a bit to be able to expostulate for a time on things like syntax and grammar.

I remember the nuns of my youth — tough and tough-minded women, but fair — pounding the rules of grammar into us with an unswerving resolve.

But I don't remember them ever effacing adjectives and adverbs from our vocabulary.

It creates a difficult theology for the faithful who believe the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals.

Does that infallibility extend to adjectives and adverbs? What about conditional sentences and subjunctive clauses?

Hoc est difficilimum, as we used to say in our living Latin class.

It would be embarrassing to be excommunicated for lousy grammar. Pardon the adjective.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.

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