Occasionally publishers send me copies of their recent or imminent publications, obviously in the hope that I’ll mention them; sometimes I don’t, either because the books are too far from the LH beat or because they irritate me. The latter was the case with Ben Yagoda‘s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It; I opened it with anticipation because I’ve enjoyed Yagoda’s writing, but a few pages into the introduction I hit this:
I’m with the prescriptivists on enthuse. The “descriptivists,” by contrast, would go to their deaths defending the use of hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped that” simply because people use it that way. These are the linguists and academic grammarians whose motto, borrowed from Alexander Pope, is “Whatever is, is right.”
And a few pages later comes this:
The main flaw of the descriptivists shows up in their own inconsistency. People such as Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, whose book The Language Instinct contains a chapter roundly ripping the “language mavens,” and the editors of the jaw-droppingly comprehensive Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage put forth an it’s-all-good philosophy, yet in their own writing follow all the traditional rules.
Now, I don’t like ignorant assaults on straw-man “descriptivists” when David Foster Wallace perpetrates them, and I don’t like them coming from Yagoda either. Yes, descriptivists (better known as “linguists”) describe language as it is, not as they might like it to be, just the way astronomers describe the universe as it is and physicists describe subatomic particles as they are. What would be the point of an astronomer condemning a planet for not being the kind of planet he prefers? And the point about descriptivists following all the traditional rules is just silly—nobody’s saying it’s bad to write according to traditional rules of style or that anything can and should be said anywhere. Obviously, with language as with clothing, there’s a time and a place for everything; most of us wouldn’t go to a fancy restaurant in ripped jeans and t-shirts, and when we’re carrying on an erudite conversation or writing a scholarly book we don’t say “ain’t.” The point is that there’s nothing wrong with ripped jeans or ain’t; in the right context they can be far more appropriate than “proper” alternatives. Context is all. And Ben, there’s nothing at all wrong with hopefully except that you personally don’t like it. Try not to confuse your preferences with the English language.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest… I reopened the book recently and discovered that it’s actually a lot of fun. Yagoda loves words and good writing and has spent years saving up good quotes, which he lavishes on his book; it’s worth flipping through just for the lists of quotes like this one in the chapter on adjectives (titled “Adj.”; all his chapter titles are dictionary-style abbreviations):
“In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country-fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof.” —Roger Angell on the gridwork at the new baseball stadium in Baltimore
“She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils.” —Sylvia Townsend Warner.
“The Sunday’s events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant.” —John Updike.
“He had the surface involvement — style — while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind.” —Nicholson Baker on Updike.
And there are four more almost as enjoyable (though cartilaginous and chordal aren’t really that obscure). Alas, this parade of his favorite adjectives is preceded by a long rant about “NOAs (needlessly obscure adjectives)”:
There is no reason to use rebarbative instead of “unpleasant,” “annoying,” or some other familiar negative epithet, other than to be fancy… T.S. Eliot made a fetish of using long-dormant adjectives like defunctive, anfractuous, and polyphiloprogenitive… Senator Robert Byrd is justly snickered at for saying things like “maledicent language” and “contumelious lip.” Gore Vidal has been accused of excessive fondness for words like mephitic and riparian. In just one essay, James Fenton writes, “the element of the aleatoric may well be genuinely present,” and refers to “proleptic writers such as Ibsen and Strindberg” and to a “hieratic figure somewhat reminiscent of Ernst.” That’s too proleptic for me.
I’m sorry, but you don’t get to be both the Plain Man for whom Plain Words are Good Enough and the literary lepidopterist luxuriating in rare specimens like alembicated and infrangible. Can he really not see that all that separates his Bad Adjectives from his Good ones is that for unexamined personal reasons he happens to like the latter and dislike the former? I’ll even bet that if you dropped all the adjectives in a hat and presented them to him randomly a year later, he’d divide them entirely differently.
But it’s easy enough to ignore the over-the-top egocentrism once you get the hang of it, and the important thing is that he does know where to find real answers if he decides he needs them; in the second paragraph of the chapter on conjunctions he defers, quite properly, to “Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar“—that is to say, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney D. Huddleston and Language Log’s own Geoffrey K. Pullum.
And I learned stuff from it. In the noun chapter, Yagoda discusses productive suffixes, including -ster, tracing its evolution through “such words as huckster (first use—1300), trickster (1711), gangster (1896), roadster (1908), and hipster (1941).” When he gets to the 1990s, he says “a Massachusetts kid named Shawn Fanning was dubbed ‘the Napster’ by his high school buddies because of his curly hair. Fanning went on to invent the world’s first file-sharing software, called, naturally, Napster.” Even Wikipedia does not have that bit of origin information (as of this date), and I’m glad to know it. (I googled around and found it in enough sources to convince me it’s probably not an urban legend.) So if you can sift through the unexamined prejudices and writerly riffs to find and savor the good stuff, it’s a book well worth your while.