Friday, March 16, 2007

A Genre is Reborn

Lovers of books are, generally speaking, lovers of words, and wordplay has a long history. While some reject all rules, avid readers understand that punctuation, grammar, and word choice are important.

A good storyteller fails to prosper if she is not also a good writer, attentive to at least some agreed-upon set of rules and more concerned with edifying the reader than glorifying her own writing. Granted, having a good story is important, but a good writer can thrive with a select group on the writing alone.

About the time we opened Destinations Booksellers, Lynne Truss took the book world by storm with her Brit-centric Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Any number of other writers have joined the newly glamorous genre (and many have issued far better books than ES&L).

Today's spotlight book is from Ben Yagoda, who maintains in When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse that effective writing doesn't require slavish devotion to arcane and archaic rules, but rather an appreciation for the "beauty, the joy, the artistry, and the fun of language."

Cribbed from Mark Twain, the title is a clue to the irreverence of this compact hardcover from Broadway Books (an imprint of Random House). And for a generation with short attention spans, Yagoda keeps you awake with a stream of pop culture references that make language parts relevant to our times.

Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill holds out a temptingly lofty rationale for a consideration of the parts of speech, claiming that they represent fundamental categories of human thought. This is an attractive notion for any parts-of-speech fan, and certainly for someone (i.e., me) who has just devoted 2.7 percent of his life to the subject, but ultimately it doesn't hold water. For one thing, you find strikingly different systems in other languages, such as Latin and Korean, neither of which contains adjectives as a distinct class. (In Latin, you express the quality of a thing with nouns, and in Korean with verbs.) For another, even within a particular tradition, the lineup of categories keeps shifting. Writing in 100 B.C.E., the Greek grammarian Thrax, who invented the whole idea of parts of speech, counted eight of them: adverbs, articles, conjunctions, nouns, participles, prepositions, pronouns, and verbs. The Romans had to drop articles (that is, a and the), since such words didn't exist in Latin, and added - hot damn! - interjections. The early English gramarrians started out by adopting the Latin scheme, and it wasn't until Joseph Priestley's The Rudiments of English Grammar, published in 1761, that someone came up with the familiar baseball-team-sized list that included adjectives and booted out participles for goos. This is the list that most of us remember from grammar school, that people who were kids in the 1970s remember from the ABC series Schoolhouse Rock! (and who could forget the classic song "Conjunction Junction [what's your function?]"), and that I adopt here.

I think this one is going to catch fire like ES&L did. For better and/or worse.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda
ISBN 9780767920773 Broadway Books, Feb. 2007 (Hardcover) $21.95

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