Remembering Frank Adams
Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland
One man taught me more
about writing, in less time, than any other teacher and practically
Adams taught freshman English and American literature at Madison
College, which in 1977 would become James Madison University. On the
outside he was the quintessential fiftyish college teacher: slender,
slightly stooped frame with short, thinning brown
gold wire-rim glasses, impish grin, wool herringbone jacket, muted
oxford button-down shirt, unpretentious tie, pressed slacks, fluffy
socks, and polished cordovan penny loafers. On the inside he was a
devotee of the economical Elements of Style school
of writing. The first-year textbook Dr. Adams assigned us
was coauthored by a Madison professor I never met,
I believe Dr. Adams hailed
from the Maryland suburbs of D.C., but he had the heart of an
Englishman. As a Shakespearean and a lover of long walks in rolling
countryside, Dr. Adams recalled his travels throughout the United
Kingdom and more than once declared his willingness to offer himself
to Her Majesty’s government as a loyal subject.
Dr. Adams enjoyed
particularly the Brits’ capacity for understatement. Say
you’ve just left the theater having witnessed an awful
performance of the worst play ever written, and your English
companion will say something like, “Well, I mean, it’s
not so much that it’s bad, really,
just that it’s very quite rather sort of not very good, is
Dr. Adams would sit on the
edge of his desk with an old oak lectern between his ankles and read
our essays and themes aloud, reviewing them as if they’d
appeared in a literary journal. He had several ironclad rules that he
repeated throughout the semester, the term, or however long it took
to drill into his tender charges’ hormone-addled heads.
One of his favorites was,
“The apostrophe is still in use,” referring to the
common absence of this essential punctuation mark.
The easiest way to
demonstrate Dr. Adams’s least forgivable mistake, the comma
splice, is to rewrite the sentence above as, “The
apostrophe, is still in use.” Gale Bartholf, my junior-year
French teacher at the American School of The Hague, would have called
this a crime abominable, pronounced
à la your
favorite Gallic film star.
Another humorous rule was,
“Wherever you have placed the word only, move
it.” This was Dr. Adams’s way of redirecting one of
the most commonly misplaced words in English, and either you get it
or you’re part of the problem.
Dr. Adams abhorred
redundancy. His standard example was the word unique, which
means one of a kind. That’s one, period. Writing very
unique is like writing round
dictionary explains the etymology of this word and its less
restrictive modern uses. But Dr. Adams would have stuck to his guns,
and so do I.
This one goes even deeper:
“Never put anything in parentheses that you aren’t
willing to delete.” If a number, word, phrase, sentence, or
paragraph is less important than the writing that surrounds it, the
author should consider long and hard whether it should be there at
all. This rule has clarified my writing hundreds of times. Going
through the first draft of this piece, for example, I found myself
deleting every pair of parentheses that didn’t pass the test.
If this results in a few long sentences, so be it: I write
Dr. Adams was strict about
the singular word none, a
contraction of no
one. The correct form is, “None of those
as well as you do,” not the frequent plural mistake.
Exceptions to this rule are few and hard to defend.
He taught us to appreciate
subtle shades of meaning. My nasty sentence above would have more
bite with so well instead
of as well.
A similarly lazy slip was
the use of a word such as countless or innumerable to
describe a finite number. “Countless Americans think Donald
Trump is a buffoon” looks good on social media, but a
sufficiently inquisitive research team could tour
the country with calculators and discover exactly how many Americans
think Donald Trump is a buffoon. Even a handful of sand can be
magnified to show each tiny particle.
Dr. Adams sometimes quoted
his teenage daughter when denouncing jargon and uninteresting slang.
He said she so often responded to his suggestions with a rapid,
“Yeah, but” that the dictionary should adopt the saying
as a single word: yeahbut, meaning,
Daddy, f*** off.” The profanity is mine; Frank Adams would have
reserved such language for the faculty lounge.
Speaking of dictionaries,
Dr. Adams began every English course with “a commercial”
for the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s
Collegiate, calling it not just the most important
maybe the only book every writer
must own. He
explained why it was the best American dictionary, and he went
through all those preliminary pages of doctrine that most readers
never consult. He celebrated words the way a great composer treats
Dr. Adams would open this
dictionary lecture by declaring himself “an enemy of the dust
jacket.” His battle-scarred blue copy of Merriam-Webster’s was
proof enough, but he reported having removed the dust jacket from
every hardbound book he owned. His practical reason was that this
flimsy, slippery, finger-slicing advertisement got in the way of a
frequently used reference work and was a needless distraction on a
I inherited this habit for
a few years, collecting dust jackets in a drawer—some of them
do contain useful information, or at least nice artwork—but
today I observe it only on those volumes I keep at my elbow.
The great English actor
Bill Nighy plays a reclusive curmudgeon with a similar fetish in the
sweet 2019 film The Bookshop, a
tale set in a small coastal village. His character’s reason for
tossing dust jackets is that he hates being confronted by egotistical
authors’ portraits and their flowery captions.
I just inadvertently
pointed up another of Dr. Adams’s pet peeves: people who say,
“The reason is because . . .” The correct form is,
“The reason is that . . .”
forgotten some of Dr. Adams’s rules because they make so much
sense that they entered my writing subconsciously and have stayed
Oops, there’s another
one: Adams’s is less ambiguous
than Adams’, which could refer to
of Adams or Adamses.
As a fan
of Merriam-Webster’s, preferred also
Chicago Manual of Style and its collegiate
Kate Turabian, Dr. Adams recognized the logic of the serial comma, or
series comma, examples of which appear throughout my books.
Only in the last ten years
or so have I heard the serial comma called the Oxford
comma, a term that could reinforce the misconception
British English is inherently superior to its American offspring.
Cultural heritage notwithstanding, the King’s English of today
differs from ours primarily in spelling and punctuation. Even the
Anglophile Frank Adams insisted that, when in Rome, as it were, we
should drive on our side of the street.
Dr. Adams occasionally
veered from the freshman-English curriculum to help us newcomers
negotiate campus life. He stood firmly against the “Greek”
community. The cruel hazing rituals and exclusive, hypocritical
practices of fraternities and sororities—the antitheses
of fraternité—nourished the seeds of
that in 2020 are proudly on display throughout our country.
In his American lit class,
Dr. Adams had us write one-sentence summaries of famous books. I
still remember mine for The Great Gatsby: “He
is doomed who without regard for changing human emotions tries to
repeat the past.” Today I would delete everything
between who and tries.
Dr. Adams recognized my
modest literary talent early on and supported me throughout my
college career; eventually I took three courses from him. He attended
most of the music department’s concerts and found my
musicianship equally charming. But it was he who urged me to switch
my major to English, a vote of confidence that haunts me to this day;
see my book The Human Drummer.
Frank Adams had a fatal
flaw that might have seemed harmless in 1969 but that today would get
him fired and perhaps banished from academia. Like many middle-aged
men exerting a lifetime of influence on young women at the peak of
their beauty, Dr. Adams frequently used sexual innuendo in the
classroom that embarrassed even us licentious hippies. So far as I
know, Frank Adams was happily married and would never have realized
any of his mischievous fantasies and invitations. Just the same, I
hope he curbed this habit before it got him in trouble.
My own late-nineties career
on the music faculty of Catholic University presented enough daily
temptation to make a fool of any adult. Fortunately, I escaped that
political hornet’s nest undamaged. For fictionalized memories
of those days, see “Murder in the Ivory Tower,” in After
Like an imperfect
presidential candidate, the teacher Frank Adams transcended this
universal weakness. I think of him whenever I discover the cleanest,
most graceful way to put one word in front of another.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Story list and biography for Hal
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher