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

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