April 19, 2012

If you wanted to improve your writing by specializing in one part of speech...

... pick verbs.

31 comments:

rhhardin said...

I'd go with epithets.

bagoh20 said...

Will do.

Curious George said...

Fuck yeah!

Bob Ellison said...

Good advice. Henceforth, I'll deploy "devour" when describing what Barack Obama did with a dog.

Mitchell said...

Cheever relied on contradictory adjectives.

jimbino said...

Constance Hale mentions that copulative verbs are sometimes called "passive." Big mistake, since transitive verbs are used in either "active" or "passive" voice.

In any case, most journalists have no clue what a transitive verb is and will say stupid things like "The shuttle will launch tonight." It was Bill Gates, I think, who polluted the world with "...the software executes..." in Windows screen messages.

You show off your lack of education when you ignore the active/passive, transitive/intransitive and indicative/subjunctive distinctions in verb usage.

John Stossel has it mastered, George Will sometimes messes up, Christopher Hitchens was hopeless, and Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log gives all the wrong advice.

Ronald Reagan could put them all to shame.

Lucien said...

And better yet, verbs of anglo-saxon origin.

Ann Althouse said...

"Fuck yeah!"

"Fuck" isn't a verb there. Unless somehow "yeah" is fuckable.

Scott M said...

"Fuck" isn't a verb there. Unless somehow "yeah" is fuckable.

If it's good enough for Matt and Trey...

EDH said...

... pick verbs.

Eat your verbs.

Peter said...

But since any noun can be turned into a verb, that would have to include nouns as well.

edutcher said...

I wasn't aware, "Uhh", was a verb.

David said...

"Go Fish."

The verb only card game.

Christy said...

How to spin facts by manipulating the verb

rehajm said...

In the 70s Verb played after American Bandstand. Behold!

Alan said...

Hale's column is full of nonsense. Like Strunk and White, she has absurdly mistaken notions of the difference between active and passive voices. In a way, she's even worse than Strunk and White, as she seems to think that particular verbs are "active" or "passive," which is supercrazy.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

I can't respect grammarians who think it is wimpy to give an impression of the extent to which one doubts one's beliefs. Some things writers believe strongly and some things writers don't believe strongly, and it doesn't show strength to give no indication of the extent to which the writer believes something. Not distinguishing strong belief from weak opinion does not suggest strength; rather, it would suggest an audience that has so little trust in the writer's honesty (e.g., because the audience is insensitive or because the writer comes off as immoral) that assertions the writer could make concerning how strongly he believes something would lack credibility and thus be of no interest.

Bob Ellison said...

Stephen A. Meigs, I think I feel a little of what you're trying to say. If we could communicate perfectly, we would choose words and float modifiers in a way so nuanced as to make John Kerry weep.

But Hale is not addressing perfectly accurate communication. She's writing about writing. Very good, somewhat careful writing eschews words like "very" and "somewhat", because, as Stunk advised, every word should tell. That's how to convince the reader.

wyo sis said...

I'm such a wimp.

S said...

It depends on one's own weaknesses, I should think. I know my verbs, but my facility with adjectives is... uh... bad.

Scott M said...

On the topic of improving one's writing, Crimso and I were discussing Frank Herbert's "Dune" a couple night ago specifically for how it was written. As I didn't have the electronic version and am whole-hoggedly on board with the emerging new publishing model, I splurged for the 40th anniversary ebook version (damn you, Crimso).

Just in the first chapter, two things jumped right out. An unusual use of a colon.

Jessica spoke bitterly: "Chips in the path of the flood--and this chip here, this is the Duke Leto, and this one's his son, and this one's--"

Secondly, the use of italics to delineate dialogue from inner-monologue. It's used all the time by just about every author I can think of, but usually with the 3rd-person aspects remaining in un-italicized text.

He seems to be getting over it, Hawat thought, but that old witch frightened him. Why did she do it?

As a wannabe novelist working on his first book, I'm acutely aware of things like this now. What I'm not up on are the rules. Anyone?

Joe said...

Scott, the only rule is to be stylistically consistent. If the writing works, it works.

Scott M said...

Scott, the only rule is to be stylistically consistent. If the writing works, it works.

There are three golden rules to writing a good novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.

rhhardin said...

the extent to which one doubts one's beliefs.

Thurber calls this a cross-country use of "one," and likens it to a trombone solo.

Bob Ellison said...

rhhardin, Thurber never heard this.

prairie wind said...

Bad writers break the rules because they don't know the rules. Good writers break the rules judiciously, to achieve a specific effect.

Gene said...

I once made a group of journalism students write one story without any form of the verb "to be"--no is, are, was, were, being, etc.

Man, it stopped some of them dead in their keyboards. Especially ideological types who use "to be" forms to write politically motivated leads, as when they write, for instance, "more and more Americans are going green by refusing to buy electricity generated by coal-fired plants."

If you tell them not to use "is" or "are", all of a sudden they find themselves thrown back on actually including some sort of evidence in their leads, such as: "Over the last 10 years, according to a newly released Pew study, the percentage of electricity generated from coal in this country has dropped from 66% to 64%." Or some such thing.

Yeah, I know one can lie with any verb. But "to be" forms just make it so much easier.

When I gave this assignment, one student protested that it "was an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of expression" and that you couldn't even ask how old someone was if you couldn't use "are."

I told him to ask "how many years have passed since your mother gave birth to you?"

He thought that could pass muster, though it seemed to suggest a possibly unseemly interest in his mother.

Scott M said...

Yeah, I know one can lie with any verb. But "to be" forms just make it so much easier.

Take heart. We have entire demographics of people that don't even use the verb "to be" when they speak, let alone write.

"He illin'" comes to mind.

MadisonMan said...

I will happily verb up my writing.

There are three golden rules to writing a good novel

Rule #1: Get the Gold before writing.

bagoh20 said...

"Bad writers break the rules because they don't know the rules. Good writers break the rules judiciously, to achieve a specific effect."

Yep, that's what I do. Usually the specific effect I'm achieving is highly enigmatic, which is another of my specific effects.

I be effecting like a mo!herf#cker up in here.

Gene said...

Scott M: There are three golden rules to writing a good novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.

A novel is a story with a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order.