Thinking about the sound of a sentence

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Nov 28, 2006 12:01 AM

First, a caveat: There is no rule -- absolutely NO rule -- against using nouns as adjectives! The supposed rule is an old grammarian's crotchet, to be prudently ignored. Without the noun-as-adjective, we would be denied the paper clip, the picture frame, the file folder and the gin martini. Even so, the underlying principle is sound: One part of speech should not poach upon another part of speech. Let us pray.

A couple of years ago, The Washington Post reported that the president had nominated "an administration veteran to lead the Energy Department at a time of unstable oil prices and rising nuclear proliferation concerns." Would the sentence have been improved by amending it to read, "rising concerns over nuclear proliferation"? Or even, "rising concerns over the proliferation of nuclear weapons"?

Of course the sentence would have been improved. We read silently, but silently we hear what we read. The sentence, as written, read as if it were written by a writer with a mouth full of mush. (Granted, only four persons in public office can pronounce "nuclear" correctly, but for today, let it go.)

In The New York Times in May, an editorial writer spoke of "those in the House who see immigration entirely as a pest control problem." Thud! "Pest" is a noun; it has been a noun since 1568. "Control" is a noun. "Problem" is a noun. Are they having a convention? A stroke of the pen, or maybe two strokes, would have amended the sentence to read, "... entirely as a problem in pest control" -- and the alliterative effect would have been improved.

Another example, this from columnist Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post last March. He was writing about "the annual Gridiron Club dinner, one of those Washington rituals that, to those who don't live here, must seem as alien as a Masai initiation rite."

Robinson writes consistently good stuff. There was nothing "wrong" with his sentence -- it was syntactically impeccable -- but it could have been scrubbed and polished. For example:

"... the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, one of those Washington rituals that must seem to those who don't live here as alien as the mystic rites of the Masai tribe." (We have lost the definitive "initiation" but gained the alliterative "mystic.") Or perhaps we move "to those who don't live here" to the end, i.e., "must seem as alien as the mystic rites ... to those who don't live here." Or maybe we say the hell with it and leave the sentence alone.

Still one more example, this from The Washington Post in May, in an article about restaurant owner Mel Krupin. He sold his famed delicatessen in 1999, "leaving a void in the wisecracking restaurateur world." Clumsy! The problem could have been eliminated by adding two words: "in the world of the wisecracking restaurateur."

All right, one more, this from "The Immigration Impasse," an editorial in The New York Times on April 25. The writer began by shunning the subjunctive. Rhetorically he asked: "If there ever was a moment in the debate ..." (Better: "If there ever were ...) He continued with an attack of conjunctivitis marked by one sentence beginning with "and" and a record five beginning with "but." For today's purposes, let us poise a pencil over: "Meanwhile, nervous and defensive Democrats wrapped the bill tightly in a procedural blanket."

Again, there is nothing really wrong with "procedural blanket," except that the combination goes scratch-scratch instead of mmm-mmm. Suppose we wrap that bill tightly "in a blanket of procedure"? Ahhh! The sentence starts to purr. Let us listen to what we write.