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After Work: The Write Stuff

Dona Gibbs recently read two grammar books that had her giggling, snickering, guffawing and generally having a frolicking great time.

The first rule of good writing is: Don’t bore the reader. Fortunately for the many readers of Open Writing, Dona has not learned how to do that.

For more of her engaging columns please click on After Work in the menu on this page..

Have you ever flipped through a grammar book and laughed aloud?

No? I thought not.

Recently, I read two that have me giggling, snickering, guffawing and generally having a frolicking great time. But then even my best friends find me a little odd.

Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It!, The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse belongs on every writer’s reference shelf. Or better yet for contemplative bathroom reading. Yagoda, according the book jacket, teaches English at the University of Delaware. He’s written for Slate, the American Scholar, Rolling Stone and Esquire as well as four books. His style is hip, breezy and funny as he bounds among parts of speech, peppering his commentary with examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Stephen King.

The English language is changing, he notes. Parts of speech are shape-shifters, moving from nouns to verbs, from verbs to interjections, from nouns to adjectives from adverbs to verbs.

He uses a paragraph to illustrate the change. While it probably has the same effect as shaking a stern grammarian’s hand with a joy buzzer, it illustrates what Yagoda’s sees as going on with the English language.

“I was having a real fun time until I totaled my car, which was a rare make, a quality ride, and a collectible. Shoot! Then my parents started to guilt me. The whole thing weirded me out so bad that I couldn’t stop goddamning. I know it’s totally cliché, but I had to down a Scotch.”

Count the shifting parts of speech. You may deplore the change. You may cite rules but change is unstoppable, say the descriptivists. Descriptivists are linguists who, you guessed it, describe what they observe while prescriptivists are those who man the barricades against change in English usage. Yagoda judiciously straddles the two approaches.

Generations of grammar teacher were unshakable in their demands that “shall” must follow “I” to form the future tense.

Yagoda writes: “Today, the only possible response to anyone who says, ‘ I shall go to the store' is ‘And I shall call you a dork till the end of your days.”

Spunk & Bite: A writer’s guide to punchier, more engaging language & style also makes for a fun dip. Arthur Plotnik earned his cred (See, this rule-bending thing is contagious) as an author and book publishing executive. In this instructive book about writing he takes on Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and defends writing that dares, even relishes, breaking the rules.

After reading Yagoda, I was self-conscious about my reliance on adjectives and adverbs. I was moping about, putting off writing this review, but Plotnik’s exhortation to embellish and explore was like a tonic.

He even suggests that writers dare coinages. After all, he says, “Shakespeare himself is said to have invented some 1,500 of the words he used, among them grovel, hobnob and the ever-popular puke.”

“Oscar Wilde,” he writes, ”Is said to have coined dudes as a combination of duds and attitude.”

So far an apt one hasn’t pleaded with me to put it in the game. But when the time is right…

Right now I am sighing with relief that my propensity to pile on hyphenated words is okay by him as long as I don’t go too heavy on the seasoning. I am now typing away with a devil-take-the-hind-most verve.

This one sentence paragraph is okay too. Take that, Strunk & White.

So what’s the take-away, as they say in corporate-speak? My opinion is linguists like Yagoda and Plotnik make the language and its rules accessible.

What if these books should fall into the hands American high schoolers?

My, my, think of the danger these books might present to learning the rules of grammar and composition the right (spelled rigid) way.

Why kids might discover that the first rule of good writing is this: Don’t bore the reader. James Joyce would chuckle. William Burroughs would applaud. And Tom Wolfe would have to watch his back.

Ben Yagoda

Arhur Plotnik


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