Saturday, January 19, 2013

Words of motion, words of wonder

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, words, writing

Not every sentence needs them. Nearly every sentence has them. Some languages almost dispense with them. Others lavish attention on them with inflection after inflection. A Romanian friend who speaks several languages told me, "French grammar is endless!" She was referring particularly to the conjugations of verbs. When I was learning French, my fellow students and I joked that French had a hundred verb conjugations, each of which had a different way to spell the inflection, but nearly all were pronounced "-ee".

Ah, Verbs! Even in English, which is considered a language having minimal inflection—it usually uses helper words instead—many verbs have as many as six forms. Consider swim. As a child I learned, "Today I swim, yesterday I swam, and I have swum many times in the past." Then there is, "I am swimming," and, "He swims fast," and finally, the noun made from swim: "I am a swimmer."

Such verbs are called irregular today. The regular verbs simply add -ed for the past tense and past participle, though they still add -ing for present progressive, -s for third person singular present, and -er for the related noun (when one exists). Thus, spill, spilled, have spilled, spilling, spills and spiller (it exists, but is darn rare). Then we have niceties such as doubling certain final consonants and using -es rather than -s for final sibilants. This all makes learning English tricky for a foreigner (but not as tricky as French!).

Fortunately, only about a ninth (some say an eighth or even a seventh) of English words are verbs. More than half are nouns. As there are at least 14 ways to forma noun's plural (including nouns that have no plural), nouns bedevil language learners the most. But verbs come a close second; in our speech, we seldom create a sentence without using a verb, or several.

The most common verbless sentence is the admonition intended to stop a child in his tracks: "John!" This monosyllable typically implies a lot: "John, what are you doing? You stop that!" Two verbs, one including the helper are; a proper noun and four pronouns; all wrapped up in one exclamation. So even when we don't speak a verb, it comes right along anyway.

Over many years I gathered words and word forms from many sources. Then I classified them, producing a reference with nearly 61,800 words and all their forms: nouns and noun plurals, verbs with their 4 or 5 inflections, adjectives with their comparative and superlative forms, and all the common adverbs, connectives (AKA conjunctions), exclamations or interjections, prepositions and pronouns. The nouns number just over 6,750 or 11% of the lot. Adverbs outnumber verbs a little, adjectives number about 10,500, and the nouns dominate: more than 31,600 (most with plural forms).

But if you add up the kinds of words used in everyday speech and ordinary writing (not creative or formal prose, and certainly not poetry), verbs don't quite dominate, but make up about a sixth of the words used, and as the stage directors of every sentence, form a structure that would fall apart without them. Here is the prior sentence with all verbs removed:
But if you the kinds of words in everyday speech and ordinary writing [a gerund not a verb] (not creative or formal prose, and certainly not poetry), verbs don't quite, but about a sixth of the words, and as the stage directors of every sentence, a structure that without them.
Rather hard to follow, what? So when we have, as the inmate said in Cool Hand Luke, "a failure to communicate", the blame belongs to verb use, whether sloppy or pathological. (When President Clinton said, "That depends on what the definition of 'is' is.", that was pathological.) Part of the problem is the rules we probably all learned in grade school. Some rules are useful, such as those for recognizing when a verb takes a direct or indirect object. But other rules of "grammar" are misleading or simply wrong, because they are based on Latin as it was spoken by Cicero and Pliny. For example, do you remember being told not to split an infinitive? Miss Thistlebottom in your third-grade class would deplore, "To boldly go where no man has gone before." An assignment would be returned with the emendation, "Boldly to go…", but the writer of the Star Trek motto made a few millions off that phrase! In fact, in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive, because Latin doesn't use to; Latin infinitives are single words, but every English infinitive is two or more words. English infinitives practically invite spitting! So go ahead, when you need to really split one, split away!!

The twelve chapters of Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale, take on the remnants of our faulty education. Ms Hale hopes to make us all better writers as we learn how verbs really work, and how they can make our writing better understood (or make it foggier, if that is our aim). The four verbs of the title form the structure of each chapter. After some intro, the Vex section discusses/exposes a problem, the Hex section propounds a curse upon the ensuing misunderstanding, then the author Smashes and pillories sundry blunders that made it into print, and finally she offers a Smooch to the writers whose writing keeps us reading, particularly illustrating the right way to tackle that chapter's conundrum.

This doesn't mean there are twelve classes of rules needing correction. The first four chapters are historical, outlining the development of English over the past 15 centuries into the growing, effervescing brew we now enjoy. With the right perspective we can enjoy using its capabilities fully. Thus the eight following chapters help us understand tenses and voices and moods and so forth. I particularly like the author's take on the passive voice. We can't write well without it, so the pronouncements of some to "eliminate" or "avoid" or even "eschew" using passive constructions constrain us either to overactive, hyped prose or to vapid "activese".

I think of the passive voice as akin to dietary fat. We need some, just not too much. About one-eighth of our food, by weight, can be fat. Similarly, if you scan the verbs in good writing you'll find that about one sentence in eight is some kind of passive construction. Let's see, the sentence above that begins "About one-eighth…" uses a passive construction. What would I have to do to "activize" it? How about "Fat can weigh in at one-eighth of our food," or "We can healthily consume food containing up to 1/8th fat." I think the way I originally wrote it simply scans better, and matches a common mode of speech.

Near the end a chapter is devoted to "phrasal verbs", constructions such as make up, chase down, put off and look up to. These powerful verbs need thoughtful use in our writing. They easily become clich├ęs, and some such as meet up with (just use meet) should be avoided. Phrasal verbs often lead to sentences that end in prepositions. Thus, we find a simple, straightforward question: "Did the plant shut down?" (Dear Miss Thistlebottom, this is also a passive construction. So there!). Unless you know who shut it down, it would be incorrect to ask, "Did you shut down the plant?", even though the voice is now active and the final preposition has been "moved inward". The original question implies further investigation will follow, as it ought to (another final prep.). A goodly number of examples are discussed, and either their fallacy is explained, or they pass muster. An appendix goes into further detail.

Ah, the appendices! The six appendices do not quite set a record. Each is a short chapter (without the Vex, etc.), and well worth reading. Appendix Three in particular recommends several dictionaries. It is good to have a few. A quick look around shows that I have four English dictionaries in this room, and two bilingual ones. In the next few days as I finish clearing out my office (8 "work" days until retirement!), I'll bring home four more, including a 20-pound Unabridged (New 20th Century something-or-other), plus a Larousse's French/English for my son. I also have a couple rhyming dictionaries. I will leave behind the dictionaries of Geography and of Physics terms for my colleagues, who have been visiting to use them anyway.

This book could have been larger, I suppose, but it serves well for its aim. When we write, we usually wish to be understood. Gaining a better command of verbs will strengthen our writing. Finally, a book about English usage that isn't about "Grammar" (which really means "the way of Latin usage before it killed off the Romans")!

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