Interview with James Harbeck

Photo of author


James Harbeck
James Harbeck

The Grammarist is proud to introduce, James Harbeck, author, speaker and taster of words.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m James Harbeck. I make my living as an editor, writer, and layout designer. I blog as a word taster and sentence sommelier. I have a BFA, MA, and PhD in drama (theory, history, criticism) and am working on an MA in linguistics. I run, I sing, I cook, I ski, I occasionally act, I love to travel, I take pictures.

Your blog, Sesquiotica, is all about words – their sounds, appearance, taste – what is so fascinating about words?

Um. What is so fascinating about food? What is so fascinating about art? What is so fascinating about music? I think perhaps if you have to be told, it just won’t hold for you anyway. But there is enough in language to fascinate anyone. I like the performative and aesthetic aspects of language, because that’s the sort of person I am. I also like figuring things out about it because I like figuring things out in general. Others may like entirely different things about language. Words, for me, are like shiny toys, and ones that don’t cost anything either. They’re like delicious food and fine beverages that you can have as much of as you want. They’re like items of clothing and jewelry that allow you to present yourself well and feel good about yourself. They’re like new bits of camera equipment – always an enticement for a photo geek like me.

What about words specifically, and language in general, has inspired you to dedicate your time and energies to discussing, writing, and in essence, living them?

Hmmm… see above. Also the fact that there’s so much negative rubbish being passed around about language and words. So many people who just want to go around telling other people they’re wrong. I don’t like that and I want to try to spread a better attitude – and also to correct some inaccurate ideas.

You are a blog writer amongst other things. How do you think blogging has changed language? How we use language?

I’m not sure it has changed language more than anything else has. All human interaction is a force in language change. Blogging is just part of the new interconnectedness and ease of publishing that have allowed much more communication and spread of ideas and linguistic fads to take place. Facebook and Twitter are great places for the spread of catchphrases and fad constructions (for instance, lolcat speak, doge speak, “because [noun],” and photo memes such as “One does not simply [infinitive verb phrase]”); blogs mainly write about them. Language bloggers are for the most part (at least in my reading) great bastions of useful insight and information into language, but they’re voices of reason in hurricanes of poorly-thought-out prescriptions and misconceptions. The internet has allowed the spread of stupid and ignorant ideas at a great speed; it has also allowed the corrections to those ideas to spread, but if one person is going around passing out candy and another one is going around after him passing out toothbrushes, you know who’s going to have more takers.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

I don’t know that I have a unique contribution, unless it’s in making up a couple of new words and being the prime vector for a couple of others – but those haven’t really caught on. My approach that we can taste words like we can taste wine, appreciating all dimensions of them, is possibly a new analogy, but the general idea that we can enjoy all aspects of words aesthetically isn’t really an altogether new idea. I’m trying to foster a spirit of fun and enjoyment with something that so many people want to use as a tool of exclusion and judgment. Even people who loudly proclaim their love of language can often be seen proclaiming, sometimes even more loudly, their detestation of certain parts of the language – turns of phrase, words, et cetera. I really do try to push against that. I don’t like seeing language used as a tool for social exclusion and attack.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar/blogging?

Well, numerically, I seem to have gotten the most viewers and response for my piece on the phonetic description of annoying noises teenagers make, which I wrote for The Week and posted a video for on YouTube. It has certainly added to the fun of language for many people. But overall, I think my approach to enjoying words has had a positive effect. I think I’ve managed to get many people to see new ways to enjoy language and to use it consciously. I hope I have, anyway.

Why should anyone be more interested in language and how we use it?

Language is one of our most important tools. It’s one of the greatest ways we have fun and get things done. It’s also capable of doing quite a lot of damage. We organize our thoughts and our surroundings using language; our social systems are strongly influenced by our use of language. We should really try to be as conscious as possible in our use of it: understand why we do what we do, how it works, what effects it has. Otherwise it’s like following superstitious witch-doctor thinking instead of being informed by modern science.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

I would suggest that the people who fret a lot about what is the exactly correct way to write and speak worry less, and I would suggest that the people who think it doesn’t really matter take time to notice the ways in which it does. Overall, I would like to see people be more conscious users of their language: understand how and why it works and what effects it has – and how to enjoy it more and use it more effectively.

Do you have any favorite words? If so, what are they and why?

Oh, heck, I have lots of favourite words. Which one I want depends on the situation. A short list of about 1600 of my favourites can be found here. I’ve never been much of a person to pick a single favourite. Different words for different situations.

Anything else?

Hmm. Not off the top of my head. There’s an endless amount to say, so where to start? Oh: Check out my book, Songs of Love and Grammar, which is salacious verse about points of English usage – the perfect match of grammatical and romantic difficulties. For all the sexy librarians you know.