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A Chat With Ben Yagoda

Date:Feb 25, 2008
Time:6 pm Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:Friend Me, Pimp My Ride, and Signage: Or, the Ever-Changing Parts of Speech
Duration:One hour

Ben Yagoda is the author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse and several other books, including The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made He has written about language for to Slate.com, the New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education and has written for many other magazines, including the American Scholar, Rolling Stone and Esquire. He lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. His website is benyagoda.com.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 28th Wordsmith Chat!

Today we are delighted to have with us as our guest Ben Yagoda, the author of the delightful book "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse". His other books are "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing" and "About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made". He has written for publications such as Slate.com, the NY Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many other magazines.

He is joining us from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Welcome, Ben Yagoda!

Ben Yagoda
Thanks very much--it's great to be "here."

Anu Garg
The topic of this chat is: Friend Me, Pimp My Ride, and Signage: Or, the Ever-Changing Parts of Speech.

Anu Garg
I quite enjoyed your book, but why this antagonism towards the adjective?

Ben Yagoda
Not guilty! The title comes from a quotation by Mark Twain, and reflects a long standing (and to some extent understandable) antipathy towards adjectives and adverbs among writing gurus.

Betty-Bethesda
Why understandable?

Ben Yagoda
Well, it comes down to the principle of show, don't tell (the most important principle in writing, in my opinion),

Ben Yagoda
That is, instead of saying a woman is "beautiful," it's much stronger and more effective to describe how the jaw of every man in the room dropped when she arrived.

John
"She doth teach the torches to burn bright," as Romeo first noted of Juliet.

Betty-Bethesda
I'll have to ponder that, since I've never given much serious thought to modifiers. ;)

Ben Yagoda
On the other hand, Twain and others are using hyperbole, because there are some awesome adjectives in the English language.

Ben Yagoda
Romeo could talk the talk--I like the quotation.

Anu Garg
So you are saying that adjectives have their place, but use a fresh adjective.

Ben Yagoda
Fresh is a good way to put it -- I have a whole list of unusual and useful adjectives in the book.

It starts with aleatoric, alembicated, anfractuous, anodyne, baleful, bibulous, bumptious ... you get the idea.

Lauren K- Austin
Where is the line between sounding fresh and sounding like a pompous ass?

Nicolette - Newark
I don't know if I'm missing the point, but is it effective to use words that most people may not understand? (basically, what Lauren just said)

theo
I think whenever someone TRIES to sounds fresh, they are by definition an pompous ass

Ben Yagoda
Hmmm--it's a big subject, but let me say, first, that there's a big difference between writing and speaking. I would never use one of the above words in a conversation.

Betty-Bethesda
So you are saying modifiers are not favored in writing; does "writing" include advertising?

sharon price california
One can always use a dictionary if words are not known

John
But my college-aged daughter and I both loved the dialogue in Juno. It was honest and unforced, which seems to me a variation of "fresh." It seemed genuine.

Ben Yagoda
I LOVED the dialogue in Juno. It was playful and smart and funny and it revealed character.

But in a piece of writing, when you find the word that expresses the meaning you want to express, and there's no other word that means the same thing, then do it. As Sharon says, the dictionary is a great book.

Nicolette - Newark
I agree, but if your intended audience is not dictionary-loving (as I suspect most people aren't), wouldn't using such words turn people away from reading what you are presenting them?

theo
That's what I liked about it, the dialogue revealed character.

Betty-Bethesda
Lauren, btw, I've made a contraction of "pompous ass": "pompass". ;)

Lauren K- Austin
That is fresh!

Ben Yagoda
It's always something to bear in mind. When I write a review or an article, I figure I have one or two chances to use an unfamiliar word. Otherwise, I may turn off readers.

John
Perhaps if you kept a low "fog index." Don't bombard the group with a lot of new words, but use fewer in sufficient context.

Matt Murdock - Olympia
Especially if you're working to persuade; advertising as someone said. Wouldn't you want to stick to more common words?

Matt Murdock - Olympia
(When it comes to essays though, forget it. It's great fun to sound like a pompous ass.)

Ben Yagoda
I don't know much about advertising -- have never done it. I know the writers I like clearly spend a lot of time coming up with the precise word -- as we were saying about Juno, it reveals THEIR character, and that's probably the best thing about writing.

Wolfski
And as many writers know, you can use a higher diction in writing (especially narrative) than in everyday speech.

theo
Isn't that what keeps normal people from reading?

Ben Yagoda
You know, in addition to adjectives, there are eight other parts of speech!

John
Jane Austen does that well. If you re-examine the HOW the characters speak, you invariably know more about who they are, by the way they talk. Elizabeth Bennett is sharp and crisp. Mr. Darcy is haughty, but accurate, once you know more about it. Mr. Collins is an idiotic windbag.

theo
But then, should we dumb things down to make people dumber?

Matt Murdock - Olympia
Of course not, but bombarding them with new terms will just turn them away. If you want to get a an idea across, tell people something, it seems like it would be best to moderate a bit. In narratives though, especially descriptive writing, pulling out the stops would make things more interesting. (@theo)

Anu Garg
This question came in an email from Andrea L: I am thoroughly enjoying If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. It is filled with examples of usage that are so numerous, varied and utterly a propos that I am constantly wondering how long it took you to come up with them. What was the time frame of preparation for this book?

Ben Yagoda
Great question, Andrea. The answer is that it took about forty years, that is, starting when I was fourteen or so and first started to be interested in language.

When I sat down to write the book, I realized I had a mental file cabinet with all these fascinating (to me) examples.

And then the other thing is Google, of which I made good use in writing this book. That is, when I was writing it, about 25-30 times a day, I was looking up some usage, and it gave me both statistics and examples.

Wolfski
What are the other eight kinds of writing?

Ben Yagoda
To answer Wolfski's question, the parts of speech are adjective, adverb, article, conjunction, interjection, noun, preposition, pronoun and verb.

Anu Garg
A book, fiction or non-fiction, is often a sum of what you've accumulated in the back of your mind over the years.

theo
I constantly teach my students, simple clear language is the best when you want to convey an idea.

theo
Although I admit, writing a great novel is different...

Anu Garg
What is your favorite part of speech, if there could be such a thing as a favorite part of speech.

Ben Yagoda
Wow, that is a tough one. I'm not sure, but I can tell you what my LEAST favorite part is.

John
Verbs, Anu! Without question, they supply the most energy and direction, when used effectively.

Ben Yagoda
The noun. Because there are so damned many of them -- I found out that they take up about 80 percent of the dictionary.

theo
I agree with John, verbs are good

Anu Garg
Could that be that the world is, in fact, made up of nouns...

Jim Bisso
Made up of things, at least.

Jim Bisso
Not all verbs are actions. Some indicate state.

Ben Yagoda
You know, it's funny that a lot of this discussion has focused on the use of big or fancy words (partly because I gave that list of them). Actually, my book isn't really about that -- it's more about the way people change language and the parts of speech -- like the expression (and TV show) "Pimp My Ride."

The noun "pimp" becomes a verb; the verb "ride" becomes a noun.

Jim Bisso
Denominal verbs and deverbal nouns are common in English.

John
"Cross-dressing" parts of speech?

Jim - Chicago
:-)

Ben Yagoda
Good way to put it--and it's certainly been that way since Shakespeare -- he referred to "dogging them at their heels" and "backing a horse."

Jim Bisso
In some languages, e.g., Chinese, many words are adjectives, verbs, and nouns.

Jim Bisso
With no derivational morphology at all.

Jim Bisso
Out-herod Herod.

Ben Yagoda
Of course, the big cross-dressing one recently is Google -- a noun that has become a verb. The company used to send angry letters to people who talked about "Googling" someone but has stopped--it's a lost cause.

Jim Bisso
Cf. aspirin and xerox.

Wolfski
Do you think Google will eventually become a new word in the Webster's list of the next edition?

Ben Yagoda
I am absolutely positive that Google will appear as both noun and verb in every dictionary's next edition.

Matt Murdock - Olympia
Do you know where most of this starts? You see it all the time at schools and such, but that can't be the only place that words morph.

Ben Yagoda
To Matt: as someone pointed out a couple of screens ago, it seems to be an inherent part of the English language.

John
This week's Newsweek talks about Tonya Harding's ex-boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, who whacked Nancy Kerrigan with a pipe. "The phrase 'getting Gillooly'd" enters the vernacular as a synonym for a sneak attack." (3-3-08 issue, page 13)

Ben Yagoda
The word "okay" can be used as verb, noun, adjective "an okay move"), adverb ("he played okay") and interjection ("Okay!")

Ben Yagoda
Getting Gillooly'd has alliteration too.

John
"Down" ties that, as a verb, noun, adjective, preposition, and adverb.

Jim Bisso
Home, too.

Ben Yagoda
Of course there's another word (four letters long) that supposedly can be used as every part of speech. But that's probably hyperbole too.

Jim Bisso
Maybe not a preposition, ... yet.

Matt Murdock - Olympia
A pronoun?

Jim Bisso
Sheidlower wrote a book on it ...

Ben Yagoda
It's commonly used as "infixing"--as in "Un-f-ing believable."

Jim Bisso
Aka tmesis.

Ben Yagoda
I came across one example of a drill sergeant using it in a one-syllable word: "Mar-f-ing-ch!!!"

Ben Yagoda
Come to thing of it, if I had to say my favorite part of speech, I'd probably say article, in part because there are only two and a half of them: a, an, and the.

John
"Half?"

Ben Yagoda
It was a fun challenge to write a whole chapter on them. And by the way, when did "fun" become an adjective.

Jim Bisso
Yet, some languages do quite well without.

Jim Bisso
A(n).

Ben Yagoda
Yeah, I count "an" as a half because it's a variant of "a."

Jim Bisso
When Roman grammarians borrowed the parts of speech idea from the Greeks, they didn't have any use for an article, so they dropped it.

Ben Yagoda
Jim, which languages don't have articles?

Jim Bisso
Latin, Russian, Chinese, to name a few.

Ben Yagoda
And it's interesting to observe native speakers of those languages when they're first speaking English: they have a real hard time with "a" and "the."

Andrea B. - Kansas City
To not use articles could make life so much simpler.

Jim Bisso
Yes.

John
I always thought the fluid use of prepositions was the true mark of speaking in another language.

Ben Yagoda
Prepositions are insane! Sometimes they make no sense -- it's just a case of memorizing them.

Andrea B. - Kansas City
Unless the language doesn't have prepositions, that is.

Jim Bisso
Prepositions are one of the most arbitrary and difficult parts of speech to learn in a second language.

Jim Bisso
Some have postpositions.

Wolfski
It sounds kind of Neadro though...

Ben Yagoda
Excessive preposition use is also one of the biggest signs of flabby writing.

Jim Bisso
In English it's hard to tell the difference between some prepositions and some adverbs. (Verbal particles, too.)

Ben Yagoda
One last thought on articles. My favorite rock group name of all time is The The.

John
Do you write many articles on articles? ;-)

Ben Yagoda
I tried to sell the article chapter before the book was published, if only for the title: "Article Article."

Wolfski
Band names are a source of creative thought.

Jim Bisso
I like how bands are plural in British English, but singular in American English.

Ben Yagoda
Jim, you are getting into a heavy subject there.

Jim Bisso
Ta. Not just bands though, but all sorts of mass nouns.

Jim Bisso
And vis-a-vis articles, how the common expression in British English is "in hospital".

Ben Yagoda
The Brits have hugely different conventions on those things. For one thing, institutions are plural, e.g.' "Manchester United are playing an important game tonight." Sounds very weird to our ears.

Anne Castro
Mr. Yagoda, do you believe that the extensive use of idioms and ungrammatical English used is due mostly to the language's roots or the changes in speakers' lifestyles over time?

Ben Yagoda
Anne, I think I will have to go with lifestyle, and include in that popular music, the slang of different jobs and social/ethnic groups, etc.

Jim Bisso
Yes. When I first heard George Harrison sing "if you think the band are not quite right", I thought WTF!

Ben Yagoda
Right, they will elide words in that way. Instead of saying, "Now that I'm here," they'll say "Now I'm here."

Ben Yagoda
Also, I'll hasten to point out that the language is constantly changing--Shakespeare did many many things that were "ungrammatical" for his day. That's a big part of the beauty and liveliness of English.

Anne Castro
Yes, I agree. People don't realize how dynamic our language actually is.

Matt Murdock - Olympia
Don't other languages form slang terms pretty often as well?

Jim Bisso
Speaking is a social act. Society and language both influence and change each other.

Jim Bisso
There were few written grammars in Shakespeare's day. And no dictionaries as we know them today. Yet, he did OK.

Ben Yagoda
Getting back to the rock band thing, who can name some bands that intentionally dispense with the "The." I'll start: "Talking Heads.

John
I can still remember Malcolm McDowell and his gang talking in "A Clockwork Orange" and remember thinking, "this is English, and yet not English."

Jim Bisso
In the US we say Pink Floyd, but I've heard Britons say The Floyd.

Sharon Price-CA
Don't you think our language is greatly influenced by African Americans & somewhat Latinos?

Ben Yagoda
To Sharon Price: YES! I am sad to say not that familiar with Latino influence, but African-American cannot be overstated.

John
Comic books would do that, too. For a long while, it was "The Batman." Then he was referred to simply as "Batman." I believe it's gone back and forth, although I haven't been a regular reader for decades.

Andrea B. - Kansas City
In science fiction, I have noticed occurrences of the "death" of the English language. For example, in Bradbury's short story entitled "A Sound of Thunder," the time travelers return to a world in which written words are completely changed. What do you think of this?

Jim Bisso
Andrea. Not really the death, but a different kind of English. Imagine if the Normans hadn't invaded successfully. English would be quite different.

Ben Yagoda
Andrea, science fiction is another thing I am not very knowledgeable about. But that sounds like a cool story -- would you recommend I read it?

Andrea B. - Kansas City
Sure.

Jim Bisso
Proper names are a special kind of noun. Probably really a separate part of speech. They act differently, syntactically, in sentences.

Ben Yagoda
Some grammarians nowadays are trying to make these categories not so strict, and proper names are a good example. They're not a very "nouny" noun, because, for example, you can't put a "the" in front of them.

Jim Bisso
Or modify them with adjectives.

Wolfski
The English language is so fluid that I think in a couple hundred years it will only have a nodding resemblance to our current way of speaking.

Andrea B. - Kansas City
I guess that anything like that should be seen as subjective.

Jim Bisso
I'd say that linguists are trying to make the categories more strict, in a sense.

edie
Bread? :)

John
Like Shakespeare's English is to ours, Wolfski?

Ben Yagoda
Some words don't easily fit into the parts of speech. What about the word "two," for example? It's hard to say what it would be.

Wolfski
Perfect example.

Jim Bisso
More of a demonstrative pronoun than an adjective. What are numerals in traditional grammar?

John
My Junior High English teacher always said that the part of speech was defined by how it was used in any given sentence. Remember "down" and those other examples from earlier in the discussion.

Jim Bisso
Yes, John. That's how most linguists try to assign parts of speech to words.

Lauren K- Austin
If were to choose five books that illustrate the breadth of the English Language what would you choose?

Ben Yagoda
Five books, Lauren? Wow. Well here goes: complete words of Shakespeare, the Bible, Oxford English Dictionary, Fowler's Modern English Usage and Mencken's The American Language. There!

Lauren K- Austin
Novels?

Ben Yagoda
You are a tough cookie. I am getting punch, so will say Dickens's "Bleak House," "Ulysses" "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Lolita" and ... and... a wild card for your favorite writer.

Wolfski
Yeah, how about novels, Ben?

Andrea B. - Kansas City
I happen to be working on a paper about Huck Finn at this moment. What a coincidence.

Ben Yagoda
My favorite novel of all, I would say, most of all because of Huck's amazing language.

John
I loved Huck. But does Twain really show a great deal of "breadth"? Or is it more distinctive diction and the American language kicking the English back across the Atlantic?

Ben Yagoda
Right, John. It's hard to defend it as a great novel. But what an amazing amazing voice.

John
An easy agreement, there, Ben. My high school students usually cite Huck and Holden Caulfield (and Lizzie Bennett) as some of the most distinctive "voices" they can hear in their heads as they read.

Lauren K- Austin
What if Nabakov was my favorite writer?

Andrea B. - Kansas City
Ah, the subjunctive.

Ben Yagoda
Fun Fact: the original title of this book was "The Nabokovs' Nutcracker." If you read the introduction you will find out why.

Jim Bisso
Nabokov is great. He was an excellent writer in two languages.

Andrea B. - Kansas City
What do you have to say about the subjunctive? I know it's used much more frequently in other languages. It seems to be misused often by English speakers.

I guess that question doesn't have much to do with parts of speech, but I was just curious.

Jim Bisso
If it be needed, use the subjunctive.

Ben Yagoda
The subjunctive is dying a long, slow death. I predict it will be pretty much gone in fifty years -- like "whom".

Andrea B. - Kansas City
The subjunctive may matter to whom in fifty years?

Ben Yagoda
Calvin Trillin said that "whom is a word that was invented to make the speaker sound like a butler."

Jim Bisso
Even Fowler said it was moribund in the '20s.

Ben Yagoda
To whom it may concern, Andrea.

John
I love how the subjunctive APPEARS to violate common, basic agreement, and yet expresses the subtle "if I were you (but I'm not) ..."

Ben Yagoda
You're right Jim--it may be like the guy in Monty Python -- "I'm not dead yet!" for the next century.

Jim Bisso
When many folks can barely handle "between you and me", it's a stretch to ask them to use the subjunctive or the oblique form of who.

Ben Yagoda
John--there's a common wrongly used subjunctive when the action is not contrary to fact. For example, if you said, "If John was here, he would have eaten the cookies." If you're not sure if he was there, should be "was." Still, most people write "were."

Ben Yagoda
But I'm getting seriously nerdy here. You guys bring it out in me!

Jim Bisso
Man, men; go, went, am, are, is, was, were. They all seem quite healthy. Maybe some words and forms die a natural death.

edie
Isn't if strange how people think they're slumming when using me and think they're going up a notch with I?

Ben Yagoda
There's a name for it Edie--hypercorrection.

Andrea B. - Kansas City
David Anderegg wrote an interesting book about nerds.

Jim Bisso
I, personally, find "between you and I" worse than "me and John are going downtown".

Ben Yagoda
One thing I've noticed with my students is overly fancy prepositions--like "amongst" and (I kid you not) "whilst." "Oftentimes" is popular too.

Andrea L - Seattle
I am thoroughly enjoying If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. It is filled with examples of usage that are so numerous, varied and utterly a propos that I am constantly wondering how long it took you to come up with them. What was the time frame of preparation for this book?

Andrea L - Seattle
I e-mailed it earlier from work before I got home in the event that I missed the chat

Anu Garg
Andrea: Ben Yagoda answered it at the beginning of the chat. You can find it in the transcript once it's posted.

Andrea L - Seattle
Thank you very much.

Ben Yagoda
In a poll of BBC listeners some years back, "between you and I" was voted the most annoying error.

Andrea B. - KC
Oh, no! There are two Andreas!

Jim Bisso
Almost as bad as saying "To air is human"?

edie
The vote needs to make it over the pond. :)

Jim Bisso
Rather than err.

Lauren K- Austin
I like "whilst" it has a "pompass" sort of quality that I like to use when speaking.

John
It beat out "give it to him or myself"?

John
I nominate "pompass" as a great addition to the shorthand.

Ben Yagoda
Don't get me started on that. I got one student paper that referred to a "heroine attic" and another to a "Super Attendant of Schools."

John
Is that when Jane Eyre goes to the top floor to see Rochester's wife?

Jim Bisso
Heroine attic, that's good. In a Polonius sort of way.

Ben Yagoda
These things have a certain logic to them.

Jim Bisso
Perhaps if we had a more efficient orthography.

Anu Garg
Time to wrap up... Thank you, Ben Yagoda, for taking part in this discussion. For more, please see his book "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse" or visit his Web site.

Thank you all.

Jim Bisso
Thank you very much.

Ben Yagoda
Thanks to all. "Pompassly" yours, Ben.

Jim- Tacoma
Thank you; enjoyed this.

Andrea L - Seattle
LOL

Andrea B. - KC
Those can't be the last words. These shall.

I'm sure he'll edit out some content anyway

Anu Garg
Our next Wordsmith Chat guest will be Michael Erard, author of "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean". It'll take place on Mon, Mar 17, at 6pm Pacific. The topic of the chat will be Verbal Blunders and What They Mean.

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