A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech

What is a part of speech? You might not believe how much disagreement and nuanced analysis surrounds that question.

This essay ventures into some philosophical questions—What does it mean to classify a word, and how and why have those classifications changed?—before emerging with a bit of writerly advice. I find this excursion invigorating, like a deep‑sea search for treasure. Come along, and we’ll share the spoils.

According to one modern school of linguistic thought, only four word types—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—now qualify as parts of speech. Four. The nerve! … Continue reading

Your Words Come Alive With a Hint of Music

Updated May 10

Let’s leave the essay form behind
For just a beat or two.
(Go easy, please. The Bard I’m not!
But only a poem will do.)

Form must follow function,
And this form, although demanding,
Gives us access to a different
Kind of understanding.

Things that are worth saying need
To say more than they say.
By this I mean that sound and rhythm
Have a role to play. Continue reading

You Don’t Know From Prepositions

Quick! What kind of word is from?

Bet you said, “Ha! Must be a trap. Better not say preposition.”

We all learned it in grade school: from is a preposition. When I sat down to draft this post, I never intended to overturn this teaching. I set out to write a brief notice that, yes, sentences can end with prepositions. I ended up unlearning some “facts”—laboriously, by way of confusion and resistance—and expanding my perspective. I came to see that prepositions are not necessarily prepositions, that easy labels—who knew?—can obscure deeper truths.

Continue reading

The pen is mightier than the shovel

shovelingEskimos can’t have more words for snow than Central New Yorkers do. Finding myself in CNY at the moment, I have some choice words of my own for snow. Be gone.

I admit, though, that this white (or grey or black) stuff has its uses. For example, it inspires metaphorical thinking. One minute I’m chiseling frozen slush off the sidewalk; the next I’m thinking, This is like editing. Writers hack, hack, hack at the bits and chunks and heaps obstructing the mind’s way until either (a) we give up and leave our readers, like unfortunate pedestrians on a precarious trail, to fend for themselves or (b) we stand back in sweaty awe of the path that we’ve created.

If you’re hardy enough to apply a shovel to your own writing, you’ll want to give the heave-ho to the following words.

very It fails to emphasize: “I have a very strong desire to clear this walkway.”
really It weakens your point: “I really have a strong desire to clear this walkway.” (Better yet, put a verb to the heavy lifting: “I long to clear this walkway.”)
any other word that ends in -ly Adverbs are actually, truly, frankly, extremely, definitely, totally, literally, simply as insubstantial as the weightless, drifting snow that Eskimos call weightless, drifting snow.
just See Don’t say “just.” I’m just sayin’. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
proverbial See The proverbial proverbial. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
try See Try not to try. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
different See Let me count the — different? — ways. (No point expending effort repeating myself here. Hey, wait a minute…)
the fact that The fact that you’re reading this blog Your visit makes me happy. Enjoy your stroll.
not This word does not have lacks muscle.
any other words that you can toss Going after culprit words like the ones in this list (or in any of a thousand such lists) warms you up. After you’ve chucked them, stretch, bend, twist, shake your arms, and hunker down for the real chore.
never I’m kidding. Of course you can say never. How else can you tell people what words never to use?

Come on now. Put your back into it.

P.S. Like all other rules — and unlike your back — these rules are for breaking. If you’re writing poetry or lyrics, say, or if you’re going for a certain voice, or if you have a reason of any other kind (good reasons being preferable by most accounts), knock yourself out. Not literally. There, I broke a rule. I also broke one in sentence #1. Anyone notice? (John, Doug, thanks for the replies that prompted this P.S.)