Sunday Salon: Le Mot Juste


Adjectives get a bad rap from writers.  Like morphine, they’re good in small doses. They become a bad habit with increased doses.

Mark Twain wrote in a letter:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

I’ve been reading Tim O’Brien’s July, July, and O’Brien knows how to use adjectives judiciously. They make rare appearances in his prose, but when they do, they are le mot juste, the perfect word,  as here when wounded Vietnam veteran David Todd is lying in a hospital bed dosed on morphine:

Over the next three and a half weeks, off and on, a number of meditative, glutinous-sounding voices discussed the possibility of another amputation, the pros and cons.

What a perfect description of being under morphine and hearing voices, real and imagined — “glutinous-sounding”. Anyone who has ever been under morphine, or any other painkiller, knows that sensation.

And “glutinous-sounding” fits with the liquid, water motif O’Brien has been constructing throughout the novel. In a couple of spots, he uses “liquid” as an adjective. There are a lot of images of water, including a drowning, and David Todd’s wounding by the Song Tra Ky river in Vietnam.

The novel covers the stories of a set of classmates at a college reunion, the class of ’69 of Darton Hall College in Minnesota. It seems to me the motif of liquid conveys the sense of uncertainty these representatives of the Sixties feel, nothing congeals, nothing solidifies, neither love nor politics, past nor present.

Whatever thematic functions the adjectives serve, O’Brien certainly knows how to select them, to give his sentences strength when the adjectives are wide apart. Good sentences for writers to study.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

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4 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Le Mot Juste

    • Sorry I’m slow to respond to these comments. They are appreciated. The perfect word really does take a good ear and skill to discover. O’Brien is really good at finding the right word, as well as the right rhythm, as I’m finding out reading The Things They Carried.

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