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.


  1. “descriptivists (better known as ‘linguists’)…”
    Heh heh. Venerable Hat, you’re a delight when you’re splenetic.
    Yagoda had it coming, sez me.

  2. And I love the way the skeptical shade of V. Sirin hovers over these sentences. You had me at “The Sunday’s events repeated themselves…”
    By the way, synovial is lovely and oily, and none of Fenton’s butterflies is all that rare in the groves of Academe.

  3. janes'_kid says:

    What would be the point of an astronomer condemning a planet for not being the kind of planet he prefers?
    Didn’t astronomers denigrate Pluto because it was not the sort of planet they would have preferred? I agree, however, what’s the point?

  4. Synovial stunk I thought but I like penumbrous. Ancillarily DFW dialogue suffers this emotional attachment too to language–dialogue inhumanly writeful.
    The Hood Company

  5. Well, we all have an emotional attachment to language, as we do to pretty much everything. But I don’t understand why it seems to be so hard for people to separate their personal fondness for particular words and personal dislike for others from the realm of objective facts about language. I may not like polka dots myself, but that doesn’t make me want to call them evil and ban them from the earth.

  6. nathan austin says:

    I know I’m asking an old question, as this relates more to your response to Wallace’s essay, but I’m curious. There, you said something to the effect that prescriptivism is used as a club to attack those least able to defend themselves.
    But is this always the case? It seems to me that the prevalence of “gender-neutral” language is the result of a form of linguistic prescriptivism that doesn’t seek to enforce already existing rules, but to invent new rules for the express purpose of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity.
    Or am I misusing the term “prescriptivism” here?

  7. Yes, I think you are. “Prescriptivism” doesn’t refer to any attempt to prescribe what people should say, but specifically to attempts to impose ideas of “good English” derived from half-baked understandings of traditional grammar and usage. If people want to attack gender-neutral language and the like, they call it “political correctness,” not prescriptivism.

  8. I was quite startled to see in the chapter on Articles, the claim that Alexander the Great was “born Iskander, a common Muslim name” and that “Al-Iskander gives him the honorific The”.
    Say what? was my first reaction. The OED says “From the Latin form of the Greek name Alexandros, from alexein ‘to defend’ + aner ‘man’, ‘warrior’ (genitive andros). The compound was probably coined originally as a title of the goddess Hera, consort of Zeus.”
    And an Arabic-speaking friend of mine told me Iskander isn’t even a well-formed Arabic word and she very much doubts it is of Arabic origin; in her opinion, Yagoda got the story backwards: al-Iskander was an Arabic reinterpretaton of the Greek.
    It casts a certain pallor of doubtfulness over the whole book. I contacted Yagoda and asked him what his source was. He responded:
    I honestly don’t remember, but it seems to have been spurious. Thanks for setting me right–I will change in future editions (in the event that there are any).–BY

  9. Jesus, what incredible stupidity! You’d think a moment’s thought would have told him that someone born a thousand years before Islam would not have had “a common Muslim name.” I missed that bit while skimming the book; thanks for alerting me, and thanks for contacting the author so that at least there’s some possibility the error will be corrected.

  10. Well, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming by “common Muslim name” he meant “Arabic name born by many Muslims today”.
    But yeah.

  11. Al-Iskander? Isn’t he related to that English scribbler, Sheikh Zubair?

  12. The “Iskander” problem is simple, but let’s confuse the issue:
    The Muslims had a really wonderful name for Alexander, Dhul-Qarnayn (Dulcarnain). Dulcarnain built the wall protecting us from Gog and Magog, and had two horns, like Moses.
    Dhul-Qarnayn should be distinguished from Deucalion, the Greek Noah.
    Moses’ horns

  13. Fill in the blanks:
    Dulcarnain and Deucalion walk into a bar. Dulcarnain orders …. The bartender says ….. horns!

  14. Thanks for the satisfying and vindicating defense of linguistic descriptivism. Now can someone please tell me what can possibly be said to a friend who is suddenly insisting that all semantic drift is based on somebody or other’s selfish motives? The sheer irrationality of this premise baffles me. How do you explain that language evolves without sounding like a relativist?

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