Monday, June 30, 2014

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse
Ben Yagoda (2007, Broadway Books)

    A book about the parts of speech sounds like it would be about as much fun as a fifth grade English class, but it’s not so: your fifth grade teacher was almost certainly not  half as smart and as interesting as Ben Yagoda is. As it happens, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is partly concerned with exposing some of the lies your fifth grade teacher taught you about the rules of English. (If you want to go on observing such shibboleths, it’s perfectly fine with him; you just shouldn’t promulgate them as the One True Way.)

    Yagoda is interested in what words are, and what they’re good for.  He makes fruitful use of the British National Corpus, a 100-million-word collection of written and spoken language. It’s now possible to know, for instance, that adjectives represent about six percent of the words use in the corpus; so why did Mark Twain think they should be killed? “The root of the problem is lazy writers’ inordinate fondness for this part of speech. They start hurling the epithets when they haven’t provided enough data–specific nouns and active verbs–to get their idea across.” But to use adjectives creatively and resourcefully is “an indication of originality, wit, observation–the cast and quality of the writer’s mind.”

    I’d say the same of Yagoda’s use of quotations and examples, which he draws from all over the literary and cultural map. Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens share the pages with Fats Waller, the Lone Ranger, and the Simpsons. Yagoda is familiar with what Stephen King and Steven Pinker have had to say about language and writing; his highest praise goes to H. L. Mencken and Henry W. Fowler, two great early 20th century writers on English and its delights.

    Yagoda does not give much aid and comfort to prescriptivists, people who wish that English would stop changing all the time. He points out, for one thing, that they are apt to promulgate rules, like the prohibition on using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns, that have been contradicted by the practice of writers from Jane Austen to Gertrude Stein. In any case, ‘Ultimately, the issue of correctness just isn’t very interesting. Given the inevitability of change, the only question is how long a shift in spelling, syntax, punctuation, semantics, or any other aspect of usage should be in popular use before it becomes standard or accepted. Some people want things to move  fast, some people want things to move slow (except they would say slowly), and none of them has much of an impact on the actual rate of change.”

    If we can get over being nettled by them, shifts in syntax can be fascinating: “Frame started as a verb, meaning ‘to form,’ then became a noun meaning ‘border,’ and emerged as a new verb meaning ‘to put a frame around something.’” To catch a word in the act of crossing the border between one part of speech and another, or to investigate those that live in the borderlands, is to learn something useful and important.

    Possibly even more important is this: “I realized some time ago that I have a tendency to divide all experience–buildings, people, movies, songs, weather, roads, hamburgers–into two categories. The first category makes me happy to be alive. The other category makes me sad, or at best neutral. And, in the realm of language, that’s the kind of Manichaean division I care about, and that you’ll find throughout this book.” If you’re like me, in that Mencken, Fowler, and Pinker make you glad to be alive, Yagoda will too.

Email edition, July 2014