July 9, 2006
On Language

Parts of Speech

The notion of dividing words into discrete parts of speech is generally credited to the ancient Greek grammarian Dionysius Thrax. For a long time, the idea was pretty much universally accepted. Eventually, grand claims were made for it. The anonymous author of the 1733 book "The English Accidence" called the parts of speech "the foundation upon which the beautiful fabrick of the language stands." John Stuart Mill felt they represented universal categories of human thought.

One problem with such reverence is that different languages are set up differently. For example, Latin, Russian and Japanese all lack articles. Even in our own tradition, the roster keeps shifting. Thrax counted eight parts: adverbs, articles, conjunctions, nouns, participles, prepositions, pronouns and verbs. The Latin-speaking Romans obviously had to drop articles. Perhaps to keep the eight-part scheme, they added golly! interjections. Early formulations of English grammar adopted the Latin list. This presented problems, since English does have articles. There was a lot of shuffling around, until Joseph Priestley's 1761 "Rudiments of English Grammar" finally established the baseball-size lineup that included adjectives and booted out participles.

This slate has been generally accepted for the last quarter-millennium and is familiar to the population at large from "Schoolhouse Rock" and the italicized abbreviations (adj., etc.) after words in the dictionary. But for some time there have been rumblings of discontent in the higher reaches of the linguistics community. In the 1920's, Edward Sapir wrote that "no logical scheme of the parts of speech their number, nature and necessary confines is of the slightest interest to the linguist." The fact is, any parts-of-speech scheme leaves gaping holes. In the term baseball player, is the word baseball a noun or an adjective? Reasonable people differ on this point. What about the word to in an infinitive like to see? What about the there in there are?

Current-day grammarians don't even like to use "parts of speech," preferring "word classes" or "lexical categories." A recent trend has been to accept some fuzziness. Nouns, for example, are often defined by having some or all of a list of capabilities, including being the subject of a sentence or clause, having a plural form or displaying a suffix like "-tion" or "-hood." A word like mother, which does all three, is a very "nouny" noun. Paris, which satisfies only the first, is on the fringes.

Linguists have also done some major fiddling. Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum's magisterial 2002 "Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" counts pronouns as a subset of nouns, replaces articles with a new category called "determinatives" (which also includes words like this, some and every) and divides conjunctions into "coordinators" (and, but and or) and "subordinators" (like whether).

But regardless of name, lexical categories are quite useful. They make possible not only Mad Libs but also the rhetorical device anthimeria using a word as a noncustomary part of speech which is the reigning figure of speech of the present moment.

That's not to say it's a new thing. In Middle English, the nouns duke and lord started to be used as verbs, and the verbs cut and rule shifted to nouns. Shakespeare was a pro at this; his characters coined verbs "season your admiration," "dog them at the heels" and such nouns as design, scuffle and shudder. Less common shifts are noun to adjective (S.J. Perelman's "Beauty Part"), adjective to noun (the Wicked Witch's "I'll get you, my pretty") and adverb to verb (to down a drink).

This "functional shifting," as grammarians call it, is a favorite target of language mavens, whose eyebrows rise several inches when nouns like impact and access are verbed. Nor do companies like it when their trade names get shifted. In his book "Word Spy," Paul McFedries writes that Google's attorneys send journalists who use google as a verb a stern letter that cites examples of appropriate ("I used Google to check out that guy I met at the party") and inappropriate ("I googled that hottie") uses.

It's beyond obvious that Google's lawyers are fighting a losing battle. And they should relax. Not only is "I googled that hottie" great publicity for the company, but it's fresh and funny and an excellent example of how anthimeria gives English an invigorating slap upside the head. At this very moment, the language is being regenerated with phrases like my bad, verbs like dumb down and weird out and guilt ("Don't guilt me") and even the doubly anthimeric "Pimp My Ride," an MTV series in which a posse of artisans take a run-down jalopy and sleek it up into a studly vehicle containing many square yards of plush velvet and an astonishing number of LCD screens.

The word chill showed up more than 500 years ago as a noun meaning "cold" as in "winter's chill." In short order, it turned into a verb referring to the process of making someone or something cold and then into an adjective. (Eventually chilly became more common.) Fast-forward to 1979, when the song "Rapper's Delight" worked a variation on Ecclesiastes, explaining that "There's. . .a time to break and a time to chill/To act civilized or act real ill." That intransitive verb, meaning roughly "to relax," was expanded to chill out in 1983, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. The most recent variation in chill can be seen in the basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw's comment about her adoptive city of Los Angeles: "Everything is pretty chill."

Some more rococo anthimerian endeavors have clear meanings, but are more or less im-parse-able. Thus a line from the novel "Afterburn," by Zane: "No matter how hoochie I tried to be, she out-hoochied me every single time." The truly terrifying thing is that one of Zane's other novels has been published in Tokyo, and if "Afterburn" follows suit, someone will have to translate that sentence into Japanese.

Ben Yagoda teaches journalism at the University of Delaware. This essay is adapted from his latest book, "If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse," to be published in October. William Safire is on vacation.