Writers Talk About Writing
The Power of Vague Qualifiers
If writing teachers have any absolutely verboten, don't-go-there, not-on-your-life, no-no rule, it is: "Avoid vague qualifiers!" "We ought to ban vague qualifiers from writing," says L. Sanchez at his website, Writing Tools, Techniques, and Tricks, listing very, extremely, totally, completely, wholly, entirely, utterly, really, quite, rather, somewhat, slightly, and fairly among his outlawed adverbs. Quite, mostly, roughly, fairly, rather, seem, and tend "dilute the meaning of a sentence," according to an anonymous expert at The Writer's Workshop. Linda Fulkerson at Fiction Fundamentals tut-tuts vague qualifiers as "a bad habit."
I really tend to agree quite completely, totally and wholly! We all write these squirmy words — let's add sort of, kind of, somehow, and in a way to the list — in our first drafts because, like little dabs of oil, they lubricate our pens and keep them speeding forward through our sentences. When we revise, however, we must cut them to the bone. Cutting qualifiers can hurt: gee, without that "very" will anyone know I really, really mean what I'm saying? My high school English teacher used to say the best way to get "very" out of our writing was to cross it out and replace it with "damn." Then, of course, we had to cross damn out because we couldn't use damn in a sophomore term paper, and that would leave us with clean, unencumbered prose.
Yet in recently re-reading The Bulwark, Theodore Dreiser's last and perhaps greatest novel, I began to see a value in vague qualifiers that I'd never seen before.
Theodore Dreiser is well and rightly known for a flat and chilly realism that sees and paints people:
He was a small man, quite dapper, with a lean, hollow, and somewhat haggard face, but by no means sickly body, a large strident mustache, a wealth of coal black hair parted slickly on one side, and a shrewd, genial brown-black eye.... His ears were large and stood bat-wise from his head, and his eyes gleamed with a smart, evasive light. —The Titan
—and their daily doings:
Hurstwood bought the flour — which all grocers sold in 3 1/2 pound packages—for thirteen cents and paid fifteen cents for a half pound of liver and bacon. He left the package, together with the balance of thirty-two cents, upon the kitchen table, where Carrie found it. It did not escape her that the change was accurate. —Sister Carrie
What makes The Bulwark unique on the Dreiser bookshelf is the tenderness of his vision. Dreiser approaches his Bulwark characters on tip-toe, opening their inner lives to our view with a delicate respect, tentatively suggesting the subtle blend of their hopes, dreams, and desires. Dreiser loves his central character Solon Barnes, his wife Benecia, their children, and their Quaker community; he cups them gently in the hollow of his hand and studies them with a calm, intelligent sympathy. He never makes their motives iron links in chains of causation; instead he unfolds his characters so slowly, so organically, that they seems to blossom like flowers.
Early in the novel, for example, Rufus Barnes, Solon's father, moves his family into Thornbrough, a rundown but once elegant country mansion in Southern New Jersey. For Rufus, a devout and down-to-earth Quaker, the hints of patrician wealth that cling to the decayed estate arouse "for almost the first time in his life…a genuine poetic reaction to nature and its beauty."
With a dab here, a dab there, Dreiser shows Rufus becoming "strangely enamored" of the house's "faint and antique flavor." Little Lever Creek that runs through the grounds "somehow appealed to him":
This lovely little stream! These tall spear pines…. These rustic benches! The little fish that were to be seen moving in the still shallow waters. The flowers that grew here and there — hollyhocks, brown-eyed Susans, trumpet vines, moonflowers and daisies. Who could easily believe that so sheltered a delight could be privately assigned to anyone?
Look at the vague qualifiers that Dreiser uses to paint Rufus' feelings: the place "somehow appealed to him"; he becomes "strangely enamored" and succumbs to beauty for "almost the first time in his life." Many writers and editors would cut these vague adverbs because they blur Dreiser's descriptive focus. They do, but to the good purpose of giving his word-paintings an impressionistic, suggestive shimmer. An indefinite phrase like "somehow appealed" calls upon us to contribute to the description of Rufus. Dreiser won't, he can't describe exactly what Rufus felt; we can bring Rufus' feelings to life only if we invest Dreiser's portrait with experiences we've had of being "somehow" moved by emotions, the shape and drift of which we barely glimpse.
Solon's eldest daughter Isobel gets a similar tender treatment. A plain girl, Isobel is lonely at boarding school because she lacks "a certain spirit of youth," "her thoughts and ways were not essentially appealing." She develops a crush on her psychology teacher and wants to "get closer to Professor Arnold somehow, before she left." Arnold feels similar emotions:
Now because of a somewhat related mood toward life and its vagaries, Professor Arnold was gradually attracted to Isobel.
Four of its nineteen words — somewhat, mood, vagaries, and gradually — have misty, hard-to-pin-down meanings. Strip them away, and the sentence changes markedly:
Because of similar beliefs, Professor Arnold was attracted to Isobel.
The same "A causes B" logic underlies both sentences, but the mechanical logic of the second sentence rings false: life's not that cut and dried! Dreiser's fuzzy qualifiers, in contrast, give his sentence a fuzzy logic based both on the laws of nature and on the mysteries of the human heart.
Somehow may be Dreiser's favorite vague qualifier; in The Bulwark it pops up every few pages:
He was somehow haunted by the sentences in the Book of Discipline…
Somehow this uninvited conversation seemed to augur no easy time for him…
She sank into her seat, frail and weak and yet somehow distinguished…
[She] had vague dreams of being somehow related to that world of art and beauty…
With all these somehows, somewhats, almosts, and graduallys, Dreiser paints life as we live it, life with dreams and cloudy emotions included, with amorphous yet powerful pushings and pullings deep in our souls. Rufus, Solon, Benecia and the other characters live and breathe in The Bulwark, not as a characters fixed and mechanically motivated, but as men and women as unique, as tremulous, uncertain, and hopeful as ourselves, all of us unfinished and unsure, all of us responding, without quite knowing how or why, to life's slow rhythms and its sudden whims.