Remembering Frank Adams

Hal Howland

© Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland

Hal at James Madison University.
One man taught me more about writing, in less time, than any other teacher and practically any book.

Francis “Frank” 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 hair, 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, Louis Locke.

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, it’s just that it’s very quite rather sort of not very good, is it?”

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 circles. Today’s 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 for readers.

Dr. Adams was strict about the singular word none, a contraction of no one. The correct form is, “None of those cats plays 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, “Oh, 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 book but 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 musical notes.

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 literary book.

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 truth-based 1959 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 . . .

I’ve probably forgotten some of Dr. Adams’s rules because they make so much sense that they entered my writing subconsciously and have stayed there.

Oops, there’s another one: Adams’s is less ambiguous than Adams’, which could refer to any number of Adams or Adamses.

As a fan of Merriam-Webster’s, preferred also by The Chicago Manual of Style and its collegiate condensation by 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 that 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 bigotry 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 Jerusalem.

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. 

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