Prof’s new book parses parts of speech and their usage
5:40 p.m., March 12, 2007--Has Ben Yagoda, UD professor of English, and author of the recently released When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, ever met a modifier he likes?
The answer is yes, and despite the title of the author's latest book, published by Broadway Books, the reader will find a list of 70 Yagoda-recommended adjectives in chapter one, including capacious, etiolated and otiose.
“The editors were trolling through the book, and they came up with a quote from Mark Twain that they liked for the title,” Yagoda said. “It's supposed to be a fun book with great quotes and advice from great writers.”
Laid out in alphabetical order, the book explores what could be described as the good, bad and ugly uses of adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, interjections, nouns, prepositions, pronouns and verbs.
“I've been thinking about these things for the last 30 years,” Yagoda said. “I have a very strong interest in language and usage. I've written about some of these things for several publications, and it's great way to organize your ideas.”
Yagoda has contributed articles, essays and reviews to more than 50 national publications, including Esquire, The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine.
The book has received favorable reviews from critics and authors, including Christopher Buckley, who said If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, should be “absolutely required--and utterly fun--reading for anyone who cares about the work-in-progress that is the English language. Marvelous in every way.”
Cynthia Ozick wrote, “All hail to Ben Yagoda! Not only has he publicly rescued mother from the ubiquitous debasement of mom, and consigned shall to the schoolmarm's dead-rules inferno, but--ebulliently--he dresses Fowler, his eminent usage-predecessor, in relaxed American shoes. Yagoda's invigorating interrogation of our language will excite every syntax-obsessed reader and writer. (And there are more of us than you might think.)”
Individuals passionate about punctuation, language and usage tend to fall into “two groups who think, talk and write a lot about language, and the parts of speech give them both agita (acid indigestion),” Yagoda said.
Prescriptivists, who are of the Edwin Newman, John Simon and Lynne Truss persuasion, Yagoda said, “see the decline of Western civilization” in something called functional shifting, where nouns or noun phrases are pushed into becoming predicates.
“A recent example of this view is Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss, which recommends a zero-tolerance approach to punctuation,” Yagoda said. “My book is not a finger-wagging book approach. That's not the way I look at things.”
In the opposing camp are the descriptivists, a group described by Yagoda as “linguists and academic grammarians whose motto, borrowed from Alexander Pope, is 'Whatever is, is right.'”
“The main thing that strikes me is the imprecise writing that I see in the papers that students turn in,” Yagoda said. “This is mainly because of things like spell-check and the fact that people don't read enough these days. They don't have a sense of what words mean, and they are not always aware of how a word should look on paper.”
The best way to become a good writer, Yagoda said, is to read more, including work that has been edited or corrected, as opposed to reading only blogs and instant messaging texts.
“The most important principle of good writing is 'Show, don't tell,'” Yagoda said. “To be a good writer, it also helps to read a lot and to write as much as possible.”
Favorite authors for Yagoda include Russell Baker, Joan Didion, James Walcott, Calvin Trilling and Roger Angell.
While adjectives may resemble the late Rodney Dangerfield in garnering no respect, adverbs also come in for their fair share of abuse by some well-known critics, including novelist Elmore Leonard, who states in his “Writing Rules to Live by No. 4,” “Never use an adverb to modify the word 'said.' To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
Stephen King also jumped on the adverb-bashing bandwagon in his book On Writing, when he wrote “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
For Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is the shortest and least painful of the books he has written.
“Here, I could cover what I wanted,” Yagoda said. “It was nice to talk with my colleagues, the people who are interested in language.”
Most of all, Yagoda said, he wanted the book to be as much fun to read as it was to write.
“I wanted the book to provide good, useful advice, but I also wanted it to be enjoyable,” Yagoda said. “You might call it 'Yagoda unplugged.'”
Other books by Yagoda include The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing; About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made; Will Rogers: A Biography; and The Value of Family: A Blueprint for the 21st Century, with Ruth Westheimer (Dr. Ruth). He also is the co-editor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism with Kevin Kerrane, UD professor of English.
Article by Jerry Rhodes