Skunked: How to Not Write Bad/Reflections on Ben Yagoda's New Book

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Readers of this blog may not be able to guess that I am a lover of books not just about words, but about their placement between marks of punctuation.  From where I sit I see (on my shelf) Karen Elizabeth Gordon (Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness, Torn Wings and Faux Pas), Roy Blount Jr. (Alphabet Juice), Roy Peter Clark (The Glamour of Grammar), Patricia T. O'Conner (Woe is I), Kitty Burns Florey (Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog), Peter Bowler (The Superior Person's Book of Words), and all manner of thesaurus and dictionary.  I've actually read these books.  I have learned from them.

I also own three Ben Yagodas:  When You Catch an Adjective Kill it, Memoir: A History, and, as of two weeks ago, How to Not Write Bad.  A professor at the University of Delaware, an historian of The New Yorker, a man who can talk knowledgeably about many things (we have shared a place at Elizabeth Mosier's table, we have chatted over Facebook, we have talked about truth and my own long-in-the-making Handling the Truth), Ben is a conversationalist of the first order.  He has stories to tell, and he tells them wit-fully.

(There I go, making up words again.)

Ben's new book is an advice book aimed toward those who hope to "not write badly."  It was inspired by his students' work, he tells us—by their penchant for using misunderstood words, dangling clauses, spliced commas, homophones, and poorly placed possessives, among other things.  Ben has seen bad writing flare.  He has returned to tell us about it.  He is asking (mostly politely) if we could please do better.

How to Not Write Bad is intentionally full of the basics, in other words.  That little reminder to set the right apostrophe in the right place.  That hope that we will put "lie" and "lay" to proper use. That gentle corrective regarding I, myself, and me.  It is a book that asks us to be mindful, to look back over own shoulders at the language trail we leave, to be our own best copy editors, to read, to look things up.

My favorite parts of the book are those that trace the history of phrases or words.  Those parts that decode what was once wrong but is not necessarily wrong now, or could be right tomorrow.  It is the transitional nature of language that gets us most confounded, I would suggest.  The "certain grammatical constructions [that] are considered okay by some or most authorities but retain an offensive odor for many readers (and, crucially, for teachers and editors), and should be avoided."  Ben is well aware of the pitfalls and the trapdoors, and he leads us through his understanding of both in a way that could be helpful when talking with a client, say, about that word "alright," or the streamlining of adjectives, or any other number of things.

Packed with student examples, percolated with Ben's trademark style, easy to read and easy to remember, How Not to Write Bad will now join the other word books on my shelf.  I will hope to get more right here in the future—despite my penchant for longish sentences and odd little words, despite my tendency (I'm sorry; there are pressures; I will do better when I can) to blog too fast.   


KFP said...

I am so looking forward to reading this (and Handling the Truth). I'm getting my copy of How to Not Write Bad here in Philly when Ben Yagoda speaks at the Free Library of Philadelphia on March 18.

I just went to get the Free Library link so I could put it here for your readers and saw that at that event Ben will critique three essays from the stage! The brave can send him submissions now. Go here for more info. The post says the chosen essayists will get a free copy of the book. Cool!

Richard Gilbert said...

Looks fantastic. Thanks for the head's up!

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