04/17/07 - parts of speech

In today's excerpt - parts of speech:

"Broadly speaking, there are two groups of people who think, talk and write a lot about language, and parts of speech give them both agita. The 'prescriptivists,' ... peer at something like Pimp My Ride, and see the decline of Western civilization. The process by which nouns like impact and access, or a noun phrase like fast track, are verbed is called 'functional shifting.' ...

"[Functional] shifting has been going on for a long, long time. In the words of Garland Cannon ... the process became 'productive in Middle English, when the nouns duke and lord acquired verb functions, and the verbs cut and rule shifted to a noun.' Shakespeare was the past master of this kind of thing; he had characters say 'season your admiration', 'dog them at the heels', 'backing a horse', plus elbow, drug, gossip, lapse and silence—none of them ever used before as verbs.

"Nouns still get verbed every day, much to the despair of the prescriptivists. ... The real fun starts when a word shifts more than once. Frame started as a verb, meaning 'to form', then became a noun meaning 'border', and emerged as a new verb meaning 'to put a frame around something.' In a similar way, the noun wire engendered a verb ('I wired him the news'), and from that turned into another noun ('He sent me a wire'). Despite being less than two centuries old, okay is commonly used as five different parts of speech: adjective ('It was an okay movie'), adverb ('The team played okay'), interjection ('Okay!'), noun ('The boss gave her okay') and verb ('The president okayed the project'). ...

"By contrast, the 'descriptivists' ... 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. ... This school underestimates the difference in protocol between speaking and writing, unjustifiably applying the inherent looseness of the one to the necessary (to some extent) formality of the other."


Ben Yagoda


When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse


Broadway Books


Copyright 2007 by Ben Yagoda


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