The Royal They

For many years I have been instructed that the term “his or her” is the only proper pronoun for singular indefinite subjects, and to use plural pronouns such as them or they is completely erroneous. I’ve never agreed with this notion, for several of the reasons Yagoda mentions, among them the awkward pronoun s/he, or the struggle to pick a specific gender. Another reason I’d prefer to use plural pronouns, is because in certain cases I see it as being correct. For instance, when using each or every before the subject. The words signify individual, separate people, but the problem with those words is that they are only used to talk about more than one person. Saying, “I woke up this morning and made coffee” has a completely different connotation than, “I woke up each morning and made coffee.” The former sentence specifies a single day, while the latter is talking about a series of consecutive days. It makes perfect sense to use a plural pronoun when speaking of subjects that carry the precedents each, every, or another word implying multiples. Another case to use acceptable plural pronouns for single subjects involves transgenderism and gender fluidity. Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist, prefers using “they,” to avoid assigning someone an incorrect gender pronoun. This is a safe fallback for someone who has not had the chance to ask which pronoun the person would like, and is not as inhumane as saying “it.” However, if they do have the chance to (politely) ask the person in question which pronoun they would prefer, it should be clarified rather than assumed.

Yagoda’s mention of the “royal we” immediately brought to mind the scene from The Big Lebowski (1998). In the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character was supposed to conduct an errand by himself, and is called out when he admits that he dropped off the money with someone else. To avoid punishment, Bridges quickly backtracks to say that he meant the royal we, a term virtually unheard of in today’s world, especially for Americans.

I was also surprised to notice Yagoda’s absence of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his dissection of the word it. In an iconic scene, the protagonists run across the Knights Who Say Ni, and discover that mention of the word it causes the Knights great distress. Perhaps this stems from a desire to construct better-worded sentences? We may never know.

Like, Adverbs, You Know?

While Yagoda may not seem to hate adverbs in the way he does nouns, the rest of the writing world seems to disagree. As laughable as all the presented quotes on adverbs are, it’s ironic that none of those being quoted could seem to properly deride adverbs without using the loathsome part of speech in their sentences. While Yagoda understands that adverbs can be a “crutch,” he also admits in When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, that they can be “a tool necessary for expressing a multitude of meanings.” It was particularly interesting to me how much he liked the word “like.” When I moved to California two years ago, I immediately discovered the frequency of “likes” that fly around on a Santa Barbara college campus. I even started a game where I would count how many occurred in a single sentence; there were just so many. In this time, I have also met a girl who was self-conscious to the point of being apologetic of how often she injected “you know” into her sentences. She fully believed that, instead of using them as fillers, she was just really concerned with making sure the other person understood what she was saying. Luckily, there are articles out on the Internet that can help people fix their like addiction. However, the article leaves out one of like’s denotations to mean “as if,” (i.e. it was like the sun was shining through her eyes).

Another adverb that I found interesting was the versatile “only.” I have come across similar examples before that challenge the reader to put “only” anywhere in a sentence and still have it make sense. It makes me think of the motto YOLO. “Only” can be transported anywhere around in the phrase and it still makes grammatical sense:

You Only Live Once
Only You Live Once
You Live Only Once
You Live Once Only (this seems to be the odd one out)

My personal favorite, however, is the Yoda version:
Only Once You Live

Verbing

Yagoda’s passion for verbs is obvious; they are clearly his favorite part of speech yet. I appreciated his affinity for the word get, and its numerous denotations. I thought it was interesting that the words have got only seem to sound acceptable when presented in a contraction, such as, “You’ve got mail!” I also was intrigued by the frequency with which people will intentionally use the incorrect conjugation of words. The first example that came to my mind was from the 2008 film Pineapple Express. In the movie, Craig Robinson’s character utters the humorous line “I seen’t it,” which has since become a popular Internet meme. The sentence is a curious thing to look at. When you dissect it according to other –n’t contractions, Robinson is literally saying, “I see not it.” However, the phrase is actually an emphatic colloquialism for “I have seen it.” Most likely, Robinson’s original line is a play on the tendency for some Americans to rephrase have seen or saw to a simple seen (i.e. “I seen her yesterday,” or “I seen that movie”). Robinson’s line may also have something to do with the director or writers wanting the Black actor to say his lines with some allusion to African American Vernacular English, as mentioned by Yagoda.

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The reference to Jerry Butler’s song “He Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” immediately made me think of Beyoncé’s recent release of the album Lemonade. Her song “Hold Up” reprises Butler’s in the chorus that repeats “They don’t love you like I love you.” While Beyoncé’s version is grammatically correct, as Yagoda pointed out, many song titles and lyrics don’t use correct verb tenses, and recycling lyrics only perpetuates and encourages misuse of grammar. I am open to English evolving over time, but I don’t believe every incorrect conjugation should become the norm (“seen’t” I’m actually alright with). Interestingly enough, in the 15 names credited to writing “Hold Up,” Butler’s remains absent.

The Revenant of Obscure Adjectives

Considering Yagoda’s distaste for nouns, I found his affinity for adjectives interesting—since all they do is serve to modify each other or a noun. In spite of their rarity, and potential for abuse, Yagoda professes himself to be a collector of adjectives, and admits they do serve a useful purpose. His opinion on needlessly obscure adjectives—“NOAs”—confused me, however. It seems if a word is not in common usage, it does not deserve to be used adjectivally. I agree, if there’s a certain word that hasn’t been used since the 17th century and sounds like a tongue twister, that it probably should be replaced, but I enjoy coming across the occasional NOA and expanding my vocabulary. Sometimes obscure words find their way into pop culture and become common words. For instance, I had never heard of “revenant” until the 2016 film of the same name was released. While I’m sure many moviegoers have never bothered to look up the definition, I was able to learn a lot of what the movie was about, just by discovering that the title means “a person who returns.”Before ever seeing a trailer for The Revenant, I understood that the movie had to do with Leonardo DiCaprio returning to someone or somewhere. Now, I am just eagerly awaiting someone to inject this “new” word into modern vocabulary. While the noun may not catch on, I think it is a good example of how the media can bring formerly obscure words into clarity. Someone may not know the definition of revenant, but if they come across the word in the future, it will probably appear more familiar to them than obscure and confusing, and they may even be more inspired to find out its meaning. It seems the trick here is not to “kill” obscure adjectives, but employ them in a way that can make people familiar with its usage.

Nounage

Yagoda’s chapter on nouns—stubbornly titled “N” as a display of the author’s animosity for that particular part of speech—was an informative look at a crucial component of the English language. I was as surprised to learn that the majority of words and new-word entries in dictionaries are made up of nouns as I was to read that the Swahili language has 11 genders.

What caught my attention the most, however, was how most words can be made into nouns by adding on a suffix, and that this style of “nouning” words is popular in slang. My first thought was of the Deflategate controversy surrounding the NFL New England Patriots last year. It is an obvious play on Nixon’s Watergate scandal, but I was unaware of the popularity of adding -gate to certain words until after Deflategate, when every minor issue became its own Gate. “Ballghazi” was another word used to describe Deflategate, referencing the scandal Hillary Clinton has been involved in regarding attacks in Benghazi in 2012. It’s interesting to see how these two suffixes make the connection not only between past and present, but also sports and politics, and it’s for reasons like this that Yagoda’s dislike of nouns fails to move me. There is so much more information to be gained from the addition of those two silly suffixes; I could know nothing about the details of the controversy, but by looking at the nouns’ endings, I can understand that it involves foul play.

Another suffix slang that came to mind was Americans’ penchant for nicknaming winter storms. Every year there seems to be another “snowpocalypse,” “snowtastrophe” or whatever latest snowy noun people have come up with. In 2010, while in Virginia for a competition, our venue collapsed under the weight of snow brought on by a storm affectionately dubbed “Snowmageddon” (no one was hurt). The number of new suffix-based slang that pops up on a daily basis in English can be dizzying, but I think in instances like Deflategate and Snowpocalypse, it can be allowed.