Adjectives boldly going to the stars

Even the most inspirational orators (and their speechwriters) slip up sometimes.

Last week, I was at Moon Walkers, an immersive experience about the moon landings by the crews of Apollos 11, 12 and 14-17. It also previews the planned return to the moon by the Artemis programme. The film includes an extract from John F Kennedy’s speech announcing the US commitment to landing people on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

The short extracts from the speech contains 2 jarring statements.

Literally false hyperbole

One of the jarring statements is hyperbolic, and factually incorrect:

‘…if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars…’

I’m sure JFK and his speechwriters knew Venus isn’t really a star. But there was no need for them to emphasise their exaggeration by adding ‘literally’. For more on misusing ‘literally’, please see We’re all saying it now – Language Miscellany

Adjective boldly going where an adverb should go

The other jarring statement is: ‘The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.’

To my ear, this sentence is flatly ungrammatical. ‘greater’ is an adjective. It would be fine to use it when it modifies a noun, as in ‘the greater our knowledge, the greater our ignorance’. But that statement is somewhat enigmatic. Presumably, that’s why the speech contains the verbs ‘increases’ and ‘unfolds’. Including those verbs certainly makes the meaning clearer.

Unfortunately, though, an adjective (such as ‘great’ or its comparative form ‘greater’) can’t modify a verb. The simplest fix would use the adverb ‘more’: the more our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds’.

References

Kennedy’s speech was made at Rice University on 12 September 1962. The text is at  

https://www.rice.edu/jfk-speech#:text=We_choose_to_go_to,on_the_Moon_before_1970

I recommend Moonwalkers highly. It is on at Lightroom, Kings Cross, London until 21 April 2024.
The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks (lightroom.uk)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *