Death to Adjectives

In my varied reading, I usually have at least one book in the hopper on the subject of writing, language, or grammar.  An aspiring writer has to keep sharpening the saw.  Anyway, I offer for the reader’s consideration a book by Ben Yagoda, entitled If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Some time ago, I was given a bound galley copy that predates the on-sale date of 10/10/06.   The published book, copyright 2007, is now entitled, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It (The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse).  The quotes I reference are from my copy, but in any case, it is a great book.  ISBN is 0-7679-2077-5, and is published by Broadway Books, an imprint of The Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

I recall my ninth-grade English teacher as an intimidating woman with the build and scowl of an NFL linebacker, though she also had a pleasant demeanor when speaking one to one.  What I don’t remember as well, regrettably, are the finer points of the parts of speech.  Ben Yagoda teaches the reader with wry humor and specific examples, pointing to bad illustrations as well as the good.  He writes with tradition and with colloquialisms.  Not only did I learn more about the parts of speech and their uses, I also learned some cultural and literary history.

Like the book I reviewed three weeks ago, here, this author provides what I call “in-line” illustrations of what he is saying.  In the introduction, Yagoda writes, concerning the history of the parts of speech, “the Romans had to drop articles (that is a and the), since such words didn’t exist in Latin, and added — hot d***!– interjections.”  Such is one but example.

I discovered some helpful information in his chapter on pronouns.  First, he relates a brief guide to the use of the second-person pronouns (thou, thee, thy, yo*, you, your) in Shakespeare’s day, and how the use of such was intertwined with how the nobility related to commoners and how each class related within the class.  Very enlightening it was, particularly since it sheds some further understanding of the humor in a few of the bard’s plays.  Then, too, Yagoda joins Richard N. Bolles of the famed What Color Is Your Parachute? in the recommendation toward using the plural pronoun they, in place of he (masculine) or he/she (not English) for a generic reference.  I think his logic is impeccable, and Yagoda provides an historical context and a precedent.

I could go on, chapter for chapter, but this is intended as a review to whet the interest, rather than a full-blown essay.  I highly recommend this book (and may be loaning it out) to other fellow writers.  It is conversational in style — not dry– and truly helpful in sorting out the purpose and uses of the various parts of speech in English.

One other comment I simply have to make on this book is with reference to tense, in his chapter on verbs.  A few of us in Granite Falls are in the middle of a book discussion on Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.  As part of that discussion, we briefly touched upon Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach.  Yagoda leads into the example of Arnold this way:

“And, indeed, the present gives a strong feeling of immediacy; it mimics the feel of the movies, maybe the preeminent narrative form of the twentieth century. On a more subtle level, the present conveys some of the indeterminancy and randomness people seem to feel nowadays.

Poetry had picked up on this a bit earlier; indeed the present is the characteristic tense of modern verse. Matthew Arnold’s 1867 “Dover Beach,” which has been called the the first modern poem, begins: “The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full…”

He continues his discourse on the next page:

“The present tense is undeniably effective, but, as Davison’s comment suggests, it’s limiting … The past tense brings with it a faith in the possibility of interpreting an orderly world, beliefs that are apparently ever harder to sustain.” (emphasis mine)

Here is a link to other reviews:

* I don’t know if yo is a typo, or if it was the subjunctive form of you.  I’m guessing it is a typo, since I can’t find it in my Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged).  Nevertheless, I put it in the post since this was how it was in the book.