marginalia || When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda

I suppose it is the height of dorkiness that I even possess this book. I suppose it is not a valid explanation that this small hardbound was brand-new (still in its plastic wrap) when I bought it for PhP50.00, about a dollar. I also suppose that the marginalia scattered on its pages (because why stop at margins?) further condemns me.

Fine. I am a dork. I love grammar. And I love the parts of speech and their many little branches and twigs. Litotes, especially. Oh, litotes. /shiver

Ben Yagoda’s “waggish yet authoritative” When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse is a compact volume on all the eccentricities of the parts of speech—what is right, what is wrong, what should’ve been wrong. “Read, and discover a book whose pop culture references, humorous asides, and bracing doses of discernment and common sense convey Yagoda’s unique sense of the ‘beauty, the joy, the artistry, and the fun of language.’”

The tone was light, humorous at some points, an affable English professor sortalike. This is not a textbook, no—but there’s so much to get from it that I’m thankful Yagoda makes grammar so fun. It being divided into nine chapters (one chapter dedicated to one part of speech) was revelatory enough. I thought there were seven parts of speech, haha. It should have seemed rushed—he flits from one aspect of the part of speech to another in record time—but he does so fluidly. There’s more than enough here. When I did feel like clamoring for more, it was the dork in me that demanded Hey more on litotes.

Also, he tends to cite writers and references and movement that frown upon the use of a certain part of speech—for a general survey of attitudes—and at p.154, I whined on the page, “There are no words left to write with”—a response to his “When it comes to writing, a fairly reliable principle is, the fewer nouns the better.”

Catch is a not underwhelming book (HA LITOTES, HA TERRIBLE USE OF LITOTES). That’s one reason why I had to resort to writing on the page: there’s so much trivia, tidbits, guides, lessons, quotes, happy eureka moments. And I’ve tried to mend my ways. After all, Yagoda told me that he “shall call anyone a dork to the end of his days” “who insists on maintaining the distinction between shall and will.” I’m trying, I’m trying. :]


Here are a few gems I got from the book. I have to keep to the “Adjectives” (the first chapter) because if I go through all of the marginalia, this shall be a very bloated post indeed. So. Most of the items on this list were noted from the book, some from the aforementioned marginalia:

[ 1 ] He quotes Ernest Weekley: “There are people who seem to think that a noun unaccompanied by an adjective has no real signification.” And I wrote, “Goodness. Am I one of these people? Am I one of these disdained people?”

[ 2 ] Of course, he touches on writers who “commit the sin of showing off—of being flowery or obscure for no reason other than to call attention to themselves—more often than not the tools of the crime are NOAs (needlessly obscure adjectives).” He cites T.S. Eliot who “made a fetish of using long-dormant adjectives like defunctive, anfractuous and polyphiloprogenetive…”

[ 3 ] Yagoda shares instances when some of those obscure words are “deployed skillfully” – he, in fact, keeps a file—and this is an example from John Updike: “The Sunday’s events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant.” [I wrote, beside this, Meh.]

[ 4 ] “Reviewers of all kinds are probably the most notorious abusers and overusers of adjectives, plugging them into sentences and relieving themselves of the need to think.” (p.29) But then he amends in p.34, “Praise is tougher, in large part because verbal inflation has taken its toll on wonderful, great, fantastic, awesome, terrific, fabulous, incredible, remarkable, and all the rest. As a result, the most effective kind of praise is often by understatement: having a certain kind of person say that something you’ve done is “decent” or “not bad” can put you on cloud nine for a week.”

[ 5 ] My favorite part of the chapter is at its end, when he lists “A Glossary of Unusual Adjectives”—it became a game for me, haha, trying to use them well (or ridiculously). Here are some—try one? :] :

  • bibulous: marked by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. > bumptious: presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive. || Last night was a bibulous night. The aftermath can be seen in how P. presses his palm against his temple, with every bumptious lurch of the car.
  • captious: tending to find and stress faults and raise objections. || He said his hello, and the warmed [illegible haha] of my baleful forgetfulness with all things lids, caps, screws, covers—all in all, a captious morning. | “Baleful forgetfulness”” WTF?
  • cloacal: relating to, figuratively or literally, the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary and generative canals of many animals discharge; having to do with sewers or cesspools. || Useless “critiques” threatened to split the seams of X.’s cloacal journal.
  • nugatory: of little or no consequence, > oneiric: of or relating to dreams. > otiose: useless; futile. || I tried  to convince myself that an oneiric kiss with Y. would be nugatory, but the effort was otiose.
  • pertinacious: stubbornly unyielding or tenacious. > pharaonic: enormous in size or magnitude. || He had quite a pharaonic member; good thing her secret of secrets was pertinacious—else their lives would forever be in shambles. | You can tell I like this, haha.


3 thoughts on “marginalia || When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda

  1. Overuse of adjectives? Guilty! I’ve realized that the majority of my editing entails deleting adjectives. I love them, but even I know they don’t often need to be there. And, I guess I should go ahead and use my dork card (I’ve had it for years) and get myself a copy of this because it sounds great. :)

    1. Gack, I love the adjective as well, though I try to remedy that by looking for the right word (which is what should be done, right? haha) As I said above, when we wrote, “When it comes to writing, a fairly reliable principle is, the fewer nouns the better.” — I whined about not having words left to write with.

      You should read how he discusses the adverb, haha.

      Wave that dork card!

      And you know what? I want a book about punctuations. Be still my beating heart.

  2. Hi! I landed on your blog because we both signed up for Dreadlockgirl’s readathon. I’m curious who else is partcipating and so I thought let’s do a little blog tour ;-)

    A book about language… I could buy that! I have a soft spot for things like that and this even sounds like a fun read ;-)

Leave a Reply to Sasha Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s