Friday, May 29, 2009

Don’t Judge the Book by Its Cover

Before long, every aspiring English-language writer gets to hear this famous diatribe of Mark Twain being quoted: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Like so many people who get accustomed to using an adjective or two to give spice to their writing, I was taken aback by that vicious grammar death sentence the first time I heard it. A grammar fatwah, of all things, and from one of America’s best-known writers! I was definitely sure that the adjective was a rather useful and congenial part of speech, so I imagined that Mark Twain must have been misquoted. I then decided to go over a representative sampling of his works to find out if he had really practiced what he had so vehemently preached. Yes, he did publicly despise adjectives, but the passage where he meted them the death sentence is actually mellower, more restrained. And he made this qualification: “No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.” In his later writings, in fact, he became even more lenient of adjective usage to the point of making this less cruel prescription: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.”

Since then, I left the matter of adjective use at that. Recently, however, I came across a book invoking Mark Twain’s original rant against the adjective in its very title: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda, an American English professor. Oh, oh, I told myself, here comes another of those slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners English-language mavens who have become so good at English that they couldn’t think of anything else but bash the very rules of usage that keep English humming nicely as one of the most widely used and serviceable languages in the world! I must confess that I imagined the worst from the book’s title: that the book would be in the same mold as Liberman and Pullum’s Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log and O’Conner and Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. To my surprise, I was dead wrong.

Indeed, I was delighted to discover that Ben Yagoda is poles apart from today’s highly determined, often gleeful assassins of established English usage, and that When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is, as The New York Times Book Review put it, actually “an ode to the parts of speech [and] isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean.”

I think Publisher’s Weekly best captured the spirit and intent of Yagoda’s book in its review: “Yagoda ... 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.”

Read an excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It

Read The New York Times review of Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It

Read Ben Yagoda’s “In Defense of Common English” in The Chronicle Review

Read Ben Yagoda’s “Believe It or Not: Memoir fabulists getting caught means the system is working” in Slate

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to Improve One’s English and Earn from One’s Writing Craft, Too!

I am taking the liberty of sharing in this blog a recent exchange about the writing craft that I had with readers of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, which I soft-launched recently at

ArvinOrtiz posted this question in the Forum: “Aside from professional writers, should other professionals learn how to write well?”

My answer was this:

Yes, absolutely! Of course, not everyone may possess or be able to develop the ability to write pieces that others would be willing to pay for to read, but it’s important to at least write clearly, accurately, and convincingly about one’s day-to-day needs, wants, and desires. In short, everyone must learn to communicate effectively in writing--not as an exercise of craft or art but as a means for getting oneself understood and for getting things done in a social setting.

Madgirl joined the exchange with this post:

“Yes, that’s right. That's what I need. Thanks for inviting me to this forum as there’s no more need for a close friend to come by and point out my common mistakes. The articles here are eye-opening enough, reminders for me to keep in my everyday life. Though there is no great pressure at work to speak perfect English, the guilt of making mistakes haunts me even at bedtime. Dear grammar and style doctor, what do we do to improve our speaking and writing abilities?

“I have been trying to contribute to some association journals for many years now, and I noticed how effective the hobby is to improving my writing style. My chosen essay topics range from gardening, mothering, traveling and managing stress in life. Short stories just talked about my everyday observations in my new cultural society. It's just nice to hear some people say that they’ve read my articles and enjoyed my narrations. You must be so happy here to be always receiving good remarks for your writing, Mr. Carillo. I’d like to say that you are my idol.

"My question now is--how do we 'earn' at the same time try to improve our writing skills? I am quite confused whether to continue with my 'odd writing' or not. I confess, I have started writing some romance short stories (well, not just romance, but super romance...ero....) to just a few readers in the hope that I could improve my description style, [like by] adding suspense and correctly positioning the climax... Oh I’m so sorry! I just realized that this writing exercise is risky but it surely catches the target audience’s attention. Now, my problem is, they keep clamoring for more.

"Could you recommend a good writer for this genre?"

And here’s my reply to Madgirl:

Thanks for the compliment! I just try to share with people what I have learned over the years about the English language.

To earn and to continue to improve your writing at the same time, write about the things you love and enjoy thinking about and like discovering more about. Someday you’ll become so good at it that you’d find a sizable enough audience that’s willing to pay for what you write. Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code did it by bashing organized religion, and even if some linguists consider him such a bad English-language stylist, he shook the world like crazy and is now laughing all the way to the bank and to Hollywood.

And if it’s erotica that’s your cup of tea, who says that it’s not a good idea to make a living out of it? Hundreds of women writers all over the world do, and I think their productions of romance novels and other entertainments outnumber those of their male counterparts by a ratio of 80:20. Think Jacqueline Susann! Think Danielle Steele! Think Emily Loring! Think Barbara Cartland!

Their works may not be great literature, but their diversions for their kindred had developed such a huge market worldwide that each of them had become an industry by herself. Their social value is, of course, that they enable women all over the world to while away their cares and forget about their day-to-day tribulations, and I think the bookstores would be gasping for air if women writers like them suddenly decided to stop production and just become plain housewives themselves for the rest of their lives.

So, Madgirl, I suggest you stop getting mad about your lot as a struggling writer. Just keep on writing until you get so comfortable with your subject that your readers would really enjoy what you say and would look forward to reading more from you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Things You Might Do If You’ve Already Mastered Your English

You are supremely confident that you have already mastered the English language all the way down to its deepest innards but (1) you find that you don’t have the talent to write a blockbuster novel or biography or history with it, or (2) you discover that you don’t have the personality or patience or the stage presence to continue teaching the hoary rules of English to rowdy and inattentive students, or, worse still, (3) you get too easily infuriated by bad English copy to hold on for long to a good-paying newspaper or magazine copyediting job.

I have a suspicion that any or all of the above might apply to the self-styled English grammar mavens who have been bashing the traditional rules of English grammar and usage lately, and that suspicion went several notches higher when I discovered that Prof. Geoffrey K. Pullum, the English linguist who has been skewering Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in the American media these past few weeks, himself had co-authored a slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners book on English usage three years ago with another linguist of apparently the same persuasion (they are both English grammar descriptivists as opposed to the prescriptivists).

That book is the 2006 paperback Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, which Prof. Pullum had co-written with Mark Liberman as lead author. Prof. Liberman, an American linguist, serves in twin capacities as trustee professor of phonetics and professor in the computer and information services department of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Pullum, a Briton who became an American citizen in 1987, had worked in visiting positions at the University of Washington and Stanford University, taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now works at the University of Edinburgh’s school of philosophy, psychology and language sciences.

Far from the Madding Gerund is actually a compilation of the linguistics duo’s irreverent essays on the English language in the popular website “Language Log,” where they are regular contributors. Just in case you are hearing it for the first time, “Language Log” is where professional linguists like Liberman and Pullum converge on the web to vent their spleen and poke fun at English misuse, and Far from the Madding Gerund was their well-meaning but, alas, too-hurried attempt to transport their language mayhem from web to print so non-netizens and laypeople can share in the merriment.

There’s little doubt that Far from the Madding Gerund is a rip-roaring read. It couldn’t be otherwise for a book that wickedly demonstrates that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is bad grammar advice, that the College Board is incapable of identifying errors in its own SAT, and that Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons fame—he’s one of their favorite punching bags—is a bad English prose stylist who messes up the very first sentence of The Da Vinci Code. But the problem, as Lisa Shea points out in her review of Far from the Madding Gerund, is that perhaps the material in the book would have been better left online with the links intact.

Shea explains: “But the real problem I had with the book, while it’s a really cool concept, is that it is pretty much a verbatim dump of the blog. I’m talking straight to the book, with sentences such as: ‘Follow-ups in our pages and elsewhere (here, here, here, here, here) discussed many cases of developments of a different kind ...’ The five ‘heres’ are all in light grey text, meaning a little sidebar gives a one-line summary of that thread’s topic and then gives you a (I kid you not) 63 character long URL that you have to type in to see what the reference is. On a blog, this works fine—you hit the link and go read the reference. In a book?? You completely miss half the story…Maybe it was that the book was really just a way to make quick money without having to write any new content at all—they hit ‘print screen’, sent it to a publisher, and were done. Maybe they didn’t have time to actually edit and work on ‘a book’.”

To me, however, an even more important concern about Far from the Madding Gerund and books of that genre is this: Other than delicious fun, what do we get from all this savage bashing of the English language? Would it actually make us better learners and users of English, or wouldn’t it ultimately lead us to a barbaric, no-rules, no-holds-barred English-usage zone from which there might be no return?

Read two excerpts from Far from the Madding Gerund:
Max Liberman: “Phineas Gage gets an iron bar right through the PP”
Geoffrey Pullum: “Without Washington’s support... who??”
Read Lisa Shea’s review of Far from the Madding Gerund
Read Daniel Jolley’s review of Far from the Madding Gerund
Read “The Dowdbot challenge,” Max Liberman’s May 18, 2009 post on “Language Log”

Monday, May 18, 2009

What do we do in the face of all the bashing that English is getting lately?

What do we do in the face of all the bashing that English as we know it has been getting lately? Do these relentless assaults on its established usage bode well or ill for English as a global language?

A few weeks ago, we saw how Prof. Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, cruelly debunked Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. In an article entitled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” in the April 17, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, Prof. Pullum said the now iconic book “does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.”

The following week, four more English usage luminaries joined Prof. Pullum in taking potshots at Strunk and White. This was in a forum run by The New York Times last April 24 to mark the book’s 50th year. The forum contributors, apart from Prof. Pullum, were Patricia T. O’Conner, author of the bestselling grammar book Woe is I; Stephen Dodson, an editor and blogger at; Ben Yagoda, author of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing and English professor at the University of Delaware; and Mignon Fogarty, creator of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

The consensus among the forum panelists seemed to be that the grammar advice in The Elements of Style, although useful at first encounter, is too simplistic and sometimes too contradictory to be truly helpful to serious learners of English. As Patricia O’Conner tartly remarked in her forum piece, “Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough…Oh, the first 14 pages are still the gospel truth…but much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney.”

Now, Patricia O’Conner is on the English-grammar warpath again with the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, a book she has co-written with her husband Stewart Kellerman, former editor at The New York Times and foreign correspondent for UPI in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In their book, the wife-and-husband team punctures what they consider as myths and misconceptions about English usage that people have been taught over the years, then postulates that some of the generally accepted “rules” of English grammar are not and never were rules in the first place.

We all know that like culture and religious belief, language is merely a system of arbitrary signs, symbols, sounds, and mutual understandings among a particular group of people about the world around them. Language is not meant to be—and was never meant to be—totally precise, formulaic, and mathematical like an algebraic or differential equation. It is therefore not surprising that English, like any other language, should consist of a hodgepodge of generally accepted, often debated, and sometimes derided rules of grammar and usage. Indeed, the wonder of it all is that despite all of its imperfections and despite its volatility and variability over the centuries, English has become one of the world’s most widely used and best understood languages.

So why deprive English of many of the generally accepted moorings—no matter how feeble and how irritatingly arbitrary or wrongheaded at times—that after all keep it thoroughly functional as a language? Shouldn’t we invest our efforts instead in encouraging and strengthening the fidelity of users and learners of English to these rules? There aren’t so many of those rules in the first place and I’m afraid that jettisoning even just a few of them for the sake of linguistic correctness or plain fun might just do more damage than good to English.

Read Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum’s Critique of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Read the forum of The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

Read an excerpt from Origins of the Specious (Chapter 1)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jose Carillo's English Forum now on third week

May 18, 2009

An Invitation to Join Jose Carillo’s English Forum on the Web

The Jose Carillo English Language Forum at is now on its third week and we are delighted to invite you to join us to make the discussions in the Forum even meatier, livelier, and more interesting.

We aim to make your visit to the Forum more productive and enjoyable each time, so we also offer a fresh lineup of features every week about English usage and the state of English as a global language. Take a look at the Forum’s package of features for this its third week:

THIS WEEK IN THE FORUM (May 17-23, 2009):
·Advice and Dissent: New Grammar Book Demolishes the Many Myths and Misconceptions About English (Does this bode well or ill for English as a global language?)
·Essays by Jose Carillo: Clich├ęs and Bad Body English (How TV is such a cruel medium for student debaters)
·Notable Works by Our Very Own: “Literature as History” by F. Sionil Jose, Philippine National Artist for Literature (The saga of coming up with Rosales, his five-novel historical saga)
·Going Deeper into English: A Thousand and One Great Poems in English (All for free with just a touch of the fingertip)
·Plugging the Gaps in Our English: Lesson # 3 – The Matter of Case in English (Just in case you’ve forgotten it now)
·News From All Over: “Noob” Might Be the One-Millionth English Word (We bet some of you don’t even know what it means)

We are sure it would be truly worth your while to be part of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, so come to the Forum now and register as a regular member.

See you today at the Forum!