At least once a year every person who writes, whether for business or for pleasure, should take a pledge. I am not thinking of a pledge against "have got," which should be taken monthly, but a pledge to honor E.B. White and his Rule No. 8.
It should go without saying (in this column, anyhow) that White was the gifted essayist, storyteller and versifier who left us "The Elements of Style." In its second edition his indispensable "little book" runs to only 78 pages. It can be read in half an hour and savored for a lifetime. In Rule No. 8 he gave us some sound advice:
"Avoid the use of qualifiers -- rather, very, little, pretty. These are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."
This is the sort of thing that irked him, from USA Today:
"Alan Shepard will forever be remembered as the astronaut who hit a golf ball on the moon. He said later that the ball landed in a small crater, referring to it as a rather unique hole-in-one."
White would have grumbled at "rather unique," not only for the leeching effect of rather, but also because unique is an absolute adjective. There's no such thing as "very unique" or "partly unique." His Rule 8 objection would have focused on the modifying rather. Rather unique? The modifier ruins the sentence.
Have another example, this one from a book review in the Washington Post. "The author tells a very riveting story." Strike the very! Shorn of the shrubbery, the sentence snaps to life.
A feature writer for the New York Times wrote about Internet message boards. In large offices these windows provide an opportunity for employees to voice feelings they would not want to express publicly. "Often the view through this window is rather ugly." What does the weakening "rather" add to "ugly"? It adds nothing but a pillow to cushion the impact.
This also is from the Times, in an editorial discussing a management proposal to make Hewlett-Packard a full-service computer company. "Skeptics counter, rather convincingly, that the deal only leads the company deeper into the low margin PC business. . . . Trouble is, the alternative of focusing more narrowly on its profitable printer and imaging businesses seems like a rather prosaic fate for the storied Hewlett-Packard brand."
Two "rathers" in one paragraph! The first of them, "rather convincingly," may be acceptable; there's a significant difference between being convinced and being rather or somewhat or mostly convinced. There's no defense for "rather prosaic." The adverb leeches the blood out of the adjective.
The critic who reviewed a novel called "Grant Speaks" didn't like the book: He termed it "a rather sophomoric exercise in historical deconstruction . . . " Another critic jumped on "The Holocaust Industry." He found it surprising that the book has been taken "rather seriously" in England. Would the criticism have been sharper without the rathers?
A political writer wondered why the impeachment of President Clinton was never mentioned in the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000. "The reasons are rather transparent. Gore does not want to be associated with Clinton, and Bush does not want to be associated with congressional Republicans." Why are these reasons only rather transparent?
One more Horrid Example, and I'll drop it. The Washington Post's man in London loved a two-woman play starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. They are "perhaps the dominant actresses of their generation on the British stage." Perhaps?
This is the unleavened dough of patty-cake prose. It lies inertly on the page -- timid, tentative, bloodless, gutless. Yes, of course there are times -- many times -- when a qualifying word is required. There is a huge difference between the auditor who is always honest and one who is almost always honest. Some wines are good; some are very good. But the difference between soon and pretty soon cannot be precisely or even generally timed. Take the advice of E.B. White! The only good rather is Dan.
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Or e-mail him at email@example.com.