- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (December 26, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0767920783
- ISBN-13: 978-0767920780
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #930,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse Reprint Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
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)
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Advance praise for If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It:
“Absolutely required—and utterly fun—reading for anyone who cares about the work-in-progress that is the English language. Marvelous in every way.” —Christopher Buckley
“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.)”
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Top Customer Reviews
Writing in a relaxed, winning, sometimes even rather breezy style, Yagoda is not overly concerned with arguing any particular brief; rather he is content with presenting his collection of apercus and wise observations, with some of his most memorable examples taken from "Seinfeld." The absence of an index or bibliography confirms the impression that this book is less serious in tone than his previous effort, "The Sound on the Page." It is nonetheless a worthy companion to that volume.
Yagoda takes his title from Mark Twain, who had once advised a young writer to kill off the adjectives, adding, "No, I don't mean utterly, but most of them – then the rest will be valuable" (pp. 15-16). On related issues such as where to use commas when listing a series of adjectives, he also offers practical suggestions. He should do more in this line. I look forward to his books devoted to punctuation, margins and fonts.
He rises in defense of the much-abused adverb, his chief argument being that it is indispensable. In the popular mind, its usual marker is -ly, derived from -like. Yagoda points out that the most commonly used ones do not in fact end that way: "so," "up," "then," "out," and "now." He calls them "stealth adverbs," since many people do not even realize that they are members of the class at all. When it comes to "hopefully," while he admits it in speech, he disapproves of it in careful writing, his objections chiefly being non-linguistic; he finds it "imprecise, muddy, solipsistic and dull" (pg. 13). As for "actually," he supplies an explanation of what it really means when a Hollywood agent tells you, "He's actually in a meeting." Translation: "I'm not lying to you" (pg. 65).
In general, he recommends replacing them with active verbs, hence "he shouted" instead of "he said loudly," and "she sprinted" instead of "she ran quickly." "In cases like these, the substitution makes for cleaner, more precise, and more forceful prose" (pg. 51). Strunk and White could not have said it better themselves.
When it comes to articles, one can only choose among four options: "a" or "an," "the," or the zero-option – no article at all. Nonetheless, this is an extremely sticky proposition for students of English as a foreign language, especially if they happen to come from a language – like Russian – that has no articles. While native speakers may make all manner of mistakes, they almost never involve articles; it's simply "in their bones." Foreigners, on the other hand, find using them correctly to be one of the hardest things to master. Fortunately, though, such errors rarely lead to serious misunderstanding.
One annoying thing native speakers do sometimes do with articles is to use "an" before aspirated "h" – "an hero," for example. Yagoda rightly calls this pretentious, though he himself was guilty of something a bit similar in "The Sound on the Page," where he talked of "a overindulgent parent." And surely John Ruskin coined "illth" as the antonym of "health," not "wealth" (pg. 149). These slips (and there are others) would hardly be worth mentioning, except once you've set yourself up as a language maven, any mistakes you make, no matter how trivial, start counting double.
Turning to pronouns, who knew that back in 1850 the English Parliament passed a law banning the official use of the expression "he or she" in favor of the generic "he"? We should all learn from this example that language use cannot be legislated. Yagoda supports the sensible alternative of using "they" as a gender-neutral, "epicene" pronoun instead of the politically correct but awkward "he or she," and supplies examples from as far back as Shakespeare, the King James translation of the Bible, and Henry Fielding. As for solecisms like "between you and I," he provides an amusing characterization of the phenomenon known as "hypercorrection": "wrong but with good intentions" (pg. 191).
Odds and ends: The most neglected part of speech, interjections, he treats with respect, tracing for example the evolution of "dude" from a slang noun to "full-fledged member of the category" (pg. 130). In his brief chapter on nouns (a class for which he professes little affection), who would have guessed that "the top noun, 'time,' comes in at an unimpressive number sixty-six" on a list of frequently-used words (pg. 153)? Dan Brown comes in for some well-deserved criticism for mixing up the contrary-to-fact "if it were" with the merely unknown "if it was." I could continue, but since Yagoda concludes his book abruptly without any summing up, I will follow suit and end this review the same way too.
But really folks, the book is a lot of fun and very entertaining; although, I still don't know what a 'pluperfect subjunctive' is. If I would have known, beforehand, what it was, I may have gotten the opening joke in the 'Verb' chapter.
By the way, he didn't mention it, but I believe (at least here in Arkansas) that 'all y'all' is the plural of 'y'all.'
I could go on and on.
Enjoyed it very much. Thanks.