A mysterious stranger
joins forces with a notorious desperado
to protect a beautiful widow
from a ruthless assassin working for . . .
I neglected to note the movie for which this was the description, only because I had no intention of watching it. But the description caught my eye as an obnoxious example of the type.
“What type?” you ask enquiringly.
“The writing-with-unnecessary-modifiers type,” I explain explanatively. “And the writing-inconsistently type,” I add under my breath.
Let me explicate expansively.
Can there be familiar, known, regular or usual strangers? No, there cannot.
Are movie desperados ever anything but notorious: ill-famed, dishonourable, disreputable and wicked (and likely smelly besides)? No, they are not.
Are movie widows who are being protected by someone they just met anything less than beautiful (or at least pleasing or pretty, perhaps as much as comely or lovely, and maybe even gorgeous, ravishing or magnificent)? No, they are not.
And are assassins — folks who kill widows (or who hire out to make the attempt) — anything other than ruthless: barbarous, harsh, cruel, callous and cold-blooded? Again no. I know of no kind, compassionate, humane and merciful assassins in life or in fiction.
And what can we say about that railroad? Evidently nothing at all. Certainly we may surmise that it is a dastardly railroad (What other type would target a widow — of any degree of pulchritude — for death?), a cowardly railroad (What other type would hire out its dirty work?), and a capitalist-scumbag railroad (What other type could benefit from or even afford an assassin’s services?).
And yet the previously modifier-happy writer is suddenly seized by an unusual, atypical and unexpected reticence. We are left hanging on key, critical and relevant points. Is it a transcontinental railroad? Regional? Inter-city? Commuter? Small-gauge? Heavy rail? Steam? Funicular? We are doomed never to know.
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adverbs and adjectives.
– The Elements of Style
Of course no rule is absolute: Modifiers often clarify or impactify. But when the noun carries the adjective — mysterious stranger, notorious desperado, beautiful movie-widow, ruthless assassin — we do well to avoid them unless it’s for cumulatively comic effect.
“As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”
– Mark Twain, as attributed
But I’m still wondering what kind of railroad it was.