A Curiously Unmodified Railroad

A mysterious stranger
joins forces with a notorious desperado
to protect a beautiful widow
from a ruthless assassin working for . . .
the railroad.

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.


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7 Responses to A Curiously Unmodified Railroad

  1. Isabel Gibson says:

    (This looks like Isabel but it’s really Barbara, doing an email workaround for a comment-unfriendly browser . . .)

    How about:
    “A beautiful stranger
    joins forces with a mysterious desperado
    to protect a ruthless widow working for รขโ‚ฌยฆ
    the railroad.”

    I, Isabel, note mildly that we still know nothing about that pesky railroad . . .

  2. Dave says:

    Does “working for” the railroad mean the railroad might be up to no good or is that just where the assassin happened to be employed. ?

    PS Old guys need adjectives as the imagination deteriorates.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave: ๐Ÿ™‚ I took it as “up to no good” but here’s where a modifier actually would have been useful: “innocent” railroad or somesuch would have conveyed the second meaning.

  3. A curious modification of the Perils of Pauline motif, but a mystery less complex than Murder on the Orient Express. All of which, especially the photo, revives my nostalgia for the days when rail travel was the norm. Have you considered writing novels? I’ll bet you’d have a flare for it!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – No novels in my future, I’m pretty sure, but thanks for the vote of confidence. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Douglas Keegan says:

    Hi Isabel,

    if you don’t already know the description is from this film: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/upon-time-west-review/



    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Douglas: Many thanks. I might have thought to Google that. Google knows everything. ๐Ÿ™‚ To be fair (as reporters in this country like to say right before they argue on behalf of some politician they like but who’s in trouble), maybe it was a tongue-in-cheek description. Cheers to you.

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