When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It
The Parts of Speech
For Better and/or Worse

Ben Yagoda
Ben Yagoda wanted to call it Pimp My Ride, which might have brought in readers of Road and Track and Low Rider, along with Yo! Raps and Vibe. It might even have attracted a few blog fans of The Brothel Creeper and The Daily Hooker.

His final title may have been culled from the famous Zen koan, first made famous in this country in 1975 as the title of a book by Sheldon Kopp: If You Meet Buddha On The Road, Kill Him. The message: the true way to divinity is to destroy any distraction that gets in your way; even if you run into the Buddha himself, you should be done with him.

Yagoda's title thus implies that the formal study of language (those pesky rules we learned in high school English) might not be in accord with the reality of English: which moves and twists and evolves constantly. Thus Yagoda could be seen as a finger pointing not at the moon but at the passing gerund.

The English language is forever and a day getting weird, popping off in strange new directions, growing new excrescences, getting pimped out. For instance, in the phrase Pimp My Ride, "the noun 'pimp' has been turned into a transitive verb."

    And the intransitive verb ride becomes a noun, meaning that in which one rides.

This argument by Yagoda brought back memories of a legal case I was involved back in my salad days in radio. The Federal Communications Commission apparently assumed that the noun "freak," being changed into a transitive verb by a pastor who worked with Martin Luther King --- "freak your mama" was his exact phrase --- had drifted beyond the pale; that radio stations had a duty to protect their listeners from these new (and bad) (and black) obscenities, these stealth words. Thus the daffy world of government media regulation forty years ago. (Since then the FCC has essentially gone out of the let's improve the broadcast business except for occasional breast-beatings, and I doubt that any of the Fox stations or any other radio or television station would merit a hand-slap for such language in 2008.)

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Yagoda is no poker-up-the-ass professor. He teaches English at the University of Delaware and can quote as easily from the Simpsons, Bruce Springsteen, Fats Waller and the Beat Poet Lew Welch (a particular favorite of mine) as he can from Shakespeare, Fowler, the OED and Lord Byron.

This last brings an exhilarating quote in his chapter on prepositions. The thesis is that the fewer the better. The New Yorker and Vladimir Nabokov, for example, show a ratio of around one (preposition) to nine (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) But Yagoda being Yagoda and a trickster, immediately turns the rule around to show the contrary, quoting from the plethora of prepositions in "The Prisoner of Chillon." In Byron's "little isle,"

    ... there were three tall trees,
    And o'er it blew the mountain breeze,
    And by it there were waters flowing,
    And on it there were young flowers growing.
           Of gentle breath and hue.

Yagoda often does that. He will give you a warhorse rule of grammar, and promptly turn it upside-down. For instance, in the question of which is the better word, that or which, he tells us that it makes no difference. They are both right. He gives an example, from the King James version of the Bible: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

You might as well kill any preconceptions you have about the English language, he suggests, for we can find thousands of exceptions to even the most hoary rules.Take "who" vs. "whom." Calvin Trillin said,

    As far as I'm concerned, "whom" is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.

Yagoda then quotes a recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Is It Whom You Know?" He explains that this is "perfectly correct," but it sounds impossibly high-falutin'. He goes on to give us an easy way to decide which to use: "If you shift around the words in the sentence and can use him or her, then whom is called for, and if he or she is the choice, then you use who.

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I think you will like Yagoda's book. When he is not quoting Shakespeare, or the King James version of the Bible ... he is calling up the Beatles, the Simpsons, and a rock band called The The. He tells us that "thusly" is not a word (I never use it) while "doubtlessly" (which I do) is also a "flat adverb." There goes another filler.

He also gives a fine summary of a subtle change in modern American hoity-toity writing --- that is, the sudden, surprising evolution in prose and poetry from the past to the present. He blames the change on John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Anne Beattie. They wrote several stories published in The New Yorker in the 1960s using the present throughout, and after that, the past became, as it were, a dead letter.

Yagoda quotes the dilemma this presents to modern editors. Peter Davidson at The New York Times says "Something like 70 percent of all the poems I receive seem to be written in the present indicative. They are constantly producing a sort of spectator poetry in which the poet is looking at himself: 'I go out, I look at the wires, there's snow on the wires, a blue jay sits on the wires, and knocks off some snow, God I'm lonely.'"

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In making it through Yagoda's somewhat dictatorial view of modern English usage, I am told I may only use "among" and "amid" instead of "amongst" and "amidst" (he condemns the longer words although I like their song). I duly note that "Hi, Sam" instead of "Dear Sam" is the now required language of email, as is breathless, often hideously scrambled simplistic prose and garish use of characters like semi-colons, slashes and open- or close-quotes to physically demonstrate emotional states.

He even takes on our telephone etiquette, because he feels --- as I do --- that when someone says "I'm looking for Ben," I am not always willing to say the hyper-correct "It is I." Especially since my name is not Ben. (I usually say, neither acknowledging nor denying my handle, "What can I do for you?")

At times, Yagoda drifts into the yawny blither of the professional linguist: "A few years ago if some one would have told me that I would have four pigs living in my house I would have said they were crazy."

    Standard English would replace the italicized words with had, because a reference to a past condition contrary to fact, a subset of the subjunctive mood, takes the past perfect, or pluperfect, tense. The nonstandard usage probably arose because the normal subjunctive is unmarked and bland; the extra would is a pleonasm, that is, a rhetorical redundance (and echoes the form of present-moment wishes, as in, "If he would only notice me").


But Yogoda is mostly amusing, can be lots of fun. He's one of these guys who knows what the "@" is ("at the price of") and where it came from (the amphora) and who started using it in email (Ray Tomlinson, 1972, at a computer consulting firm). He quotes Tomlinson,

    If you look at the keyboard, there really aren't a whole lot of choices. The one that really stands out is the at sign, because it indicates where a user might be. It's the only preposition on the keyboard.

I would, myself, have preferred the more accessible "\" or "/" or "=" ... no shift required.

Yogoda has fun with all these black letters on screens that now run our lives (twenty years ago, I had not heard of email, internet, download or blogs. A server played tennis, you took care of a virus in hospital, and pods grew on trees.

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Yagoda is endlessly quotable, and I have emailed several passages from this book to friends. My favorite is one I call "the the Angels Angels:"

    The British are not as fond of the the as we are. We say "in the hospital" and "in the spring;" the British sensibly omit the article. They favor collective or purely regional sports team names, such as Manchester United or Arsenal, while we have the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels (which when you translate the Spanish becomes "the the Angels Angels"), and such syntactical curiosities as the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic.

--- L. W. Milam
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