When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It : The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse
What do you get when you mix nine parts of speech, one great writer, and generous dashes of insight, humor, and irreverence? One phenomenally entertaining language book.
In his waggish yet authoritative book, Ben Yagoda has managed to undo the dark work of legions of English teachers and libraries of dusty grammar texts. Not since School House Rock have adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, interjections, nouns, prepositions, pronouns, and verbs been explored with such infectious exuberance. Read If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and:
Learn how to write better with classic advice from writers such as Mark Twain ("If you catch an adjective, kill it"), Stephen King ("I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs"), and Gertrude Stein ("Nouns . . . are completely not interesting").
Marvel at how a single word can shift from adverb ("I did okay"), to adjective ("It was an okay movie"), to interjection ("Okay!"), to noun ("I gave my okay"), to verb ("Who okayed this?"), depending on its use.
Avoid the pretentious preposition at, a favorite of real estate developers (e.g., "The Shoppes at White Plains").
Laugh when Yagoda says he "shall call anyone a dork to the end of his days" who insists on maintaining the distinction between shall and will.
Read, and discover a book whose pop culture references, humorous asides, and bracing doses of discernment and common sense convey Yagoda's unique sense of the "beauty, the joy, the artistry, and the fun of language."
Yagoda (The Sound on the Page) isn't trying to reinvent the style guide, just offering his personal tour of some of the English language's idiosyncrasies. Using the parts of speech as signposts, he charts an amiable path between those critics for whom any alterations to established grammar are hateful and those who believe whatever people use in speech is by default acceptable. Where many writing instructors rail against the use of adverbs, for example, he points out that they can be quite useful for conveying subtle relationships ordinary verbs can't describe. Some of this territory is familiar--Yagoda even boils down the debate over "hopefully" to outline form--but every chapter has gems tucked inside, like the section in pronouns on the "third-person athletic," the voice celebrity ballplayers use to refer to themselves in interviews. And he's definitely in love with his one-liners, such as the quip that the only acceptable use of "really" is "in imitations of Katharine Hepburn, Ed Sullivan and Elmer Fudd." Readers won't toss their copies of Strunk & White off the shelf, but Yagoda's witty grammar will rest comfortably next to the masters. (Feb. 13)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 25, 2007
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Excerpt from When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda
Kicking things off with adjectives is a little like starting a kids' birthday party with the broccoli course. Because as far as not getting respect goes, adjectives leave Rodney Dangerfield in the dust. They rank right up there with Osama bin Laden, Geraldo Rivera, and the customer-service policies of cable TV companies. That it is good to avoid them is one of the few points on which the sages of writing agree. Thus Voltaire: "The adjective is the enemy of the noun." Thus William Zinsser: "Most adjectives are...unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun."
And thus the title of this book, a piece of advice traditionally attributed to Mark Twain.
Even the ancient Greeks seem to have been dismissive of the adjective; their term for it was epitheto, meaning "something thrown on." In Latin, as previously noted, there are no adjectives, and such was the influence of that ancient language that the earlier English grammarians categorized these words as a subset of nouns. In 1735, John Collyer sensibly objected:
Words that signify the Quality of the Thing, cannot come under the same Denomination with those that signify the Name of the Thing; And seeing the Adverb, which signifies the Manner of the Verb is made a distinct Part of Speech, why should not the Adjective be so too, since it bears at least the same relation to the Noun, as that doth the Verb?
His reasoning could not really be disputed, and not long afterward the adjective became a full-fledged part of speech. The situation is not quite as simple as Collyer made it out, however. For one thing, "words that signify the Quality of the Thing," as he puts it, come from a lot of different sources. There are not only the run-of-the-mill adjectives like good, bad, and ugly, but also various verb forms (a driving rain, a decorated cake); words created from suffixes like -ific, -ive, -ous, -ful, -less, and -ic; words that do double duty as nouns and adjectives (green); both cardinal (two) and ordinal (second) numbers; determiners or possessive pronouns like the, those, and my; hyphenated adjective phrases such as high-quality; and so-called attributive nouns, such as the first word in the phrases company man, wedding cake, and motel room.
Not all of these make the grade as full-fledged adjectives. One fairly reliable test is whether a word can be modified by an adverb--for example, very, almost, or absolutely. Colors certainly qualify and numbers are usually seen as doing so as well; we could say, "Susie is almost three." But the, those, my, company, wedding, and motel (in the above examples) are not adjectives, despite the fact that they modify or describe nouns. Some words edge their way into the class over time, at which point they are looked down on by usage commentators. A classic example is fun, which started out as an attributive noun, in such phrases as fun house (in the circus) and Mayor John Lindsay's much-mocked description of New York, Fun City. Fun was not a quality of the house or the city; the idea, rather, was that in these places one had fun (a noun). In the years since then, fun has stepped out into the footlights as an adjective, sparingly at first and now robustly. So you see and hear it modified by very and so, and used in comparative form as funner and funnest. (Key is traveling a similar road.) Journalist Barbara Wallraff quoted Steven Pinker as saying that he "can tell whether people are over thirty years old or under by whether they're willing to accept fun as a full-fledged adjective." I'm well over thirty but have no objection to fun being used this way, at least in speech. After all, the only alternative for "That was a really fun trip" is "That was a really enjoyable trip," which is the kind of thing Eddie Haskell would say.
But, to reiterate, I am not one of those whatever-is-is-right loose constructionists; some new adjectives make me Sad to Be Alive. When someone says, "That's very cliche," my reaction is "That's very icky." Cliched is a perfectly good adjective that was already in the dictionary. Equally grating is the shortening of the phrasal adjective high-quality to just plain quality, as in "He's a quality individual." Unfortunately, the trend is clearly going the other way: a Yahoo search for the phrase a quality individual yields more than 15,200 hits.
While we're on the subject of Pinker's "language mavens," here's their number one adjective-related complaint: the use of comparative or intensifying modifiers with supposedly "absolute" adjectives. The poster child here is unique.