My crush on verbs

How can a person write a whole book, just on verbs? Is she crazy? If not, then why has no one else done it before her? Well, I can't answer that last question, but in preparing to write Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, which is wending its way into bookstores as I write this, I took a look at the collection of  Harvard University. (Why that library? Well, I was in Cambridge at the time, but it's also the oldest library system in the United States, the largest private library system in the world, and the fourth largest library collection in the U.S., after the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, and New York Public Library.) Get this: Harvard’s Hollis catalog coughed up 7,291 titles. I found books on Kru verbs, Russian verbs, Tzutujil verbs, Dakota verbs, Hebrew verbs, and Welsh verbs. There was Das Verb in German. There was Alchimie du Verbe and Le Verbe Est un Navire in French. But there was no poetic "The Verb Is a Boat" in English, no prosaic one-stop shop, no Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Verbs But Were Afraid to Ask. There was no one book to help the hapless, sate the serious, or answer all the questions of the curious. (The only  titles I found were geeky and ungainly: The English verb: a grammatical essay in the didactive form, “printed for” A. Millar in 1761; The English Verb: form and meanings, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1964; and The Verb in Contemporary English: theory and description, published by Cambridge University Press in 1995. Spare me!) The market was ripe for an entertaining book on verbs that slipped in a little erudition. But, still, that's not why I wanted to write a book on verbs. The truth was, I just had a lot to say about action words—about getting tense and being moody, about static sentences and dynamic ones, about the much maligned passive voice, and about all those myths out there about language generally. After all, the verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. We can twist verbs into myriad tenses and moods to allow us to be precise about time and nuanced about intention. We can say that today we do the macarena, and that in eighth-grade dancing class we foxtrotted, and that we girls had waltzed with our doting fathers before we dared do it with boys. Unless, of course, we are planning our next trip to Buenos Aires; then we say “We will tango.” Or fantasizing, in which case we might say, “I wish I were tangoing right now.” The verb pulses not just at the heart of our every memory, plan, and wish, but at the heart of English itself. “Verb” comes from the Latin verbum, for “word.” We can’t verbalize without verbs. And without verbs we can’t have verbal dexterity, which is what this book aims to give you: the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango. But for all their primacy, verbs are mostly misunderstood and often misused. Writers who swear by the importance of verbs over-rely on is and use flounder when they mean founder. Editors who rail against “passive constructions” overlook the essential purpose of static verbs: to act chivalrous and open the door for the nouns in the sentence. Self-appointed experts perpetuate rules (“Prefer the Anglo-Saxon”) that have been flat wrong for centuries. (If I were preferring the Anglo-Saxon, I couldn’t use prefer.) Teachers spread misunderstandings without doing their homework, and wordsmart authors fumble details (“Verbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and linking.” Not exactly). Wrongheaded rules have been sanctified in books and repeated by schoolteachers. Mass media gave airtime to everyone from Donald Duck to Donald Trump, and new media gave everyone if not a microphone at least a microblog. Ever new crops of “experts” (would you trust Smashwords to help you unsmash your words?) put mainstream English above marvelous English. This is the muddle we find ourselves in today. Yet we all yearn to write well. We long to speak eloquently. We dream of moving people with our words. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is a response to this urge to master language. It all starts with the verb, the word linguist Steven Pinker calls "the little despot" of every sentence. {Much of this post is excerpted from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. If you'd like to learn a little more about the book, check out the  "The Vex, Hex Manifesto,"  in the right-hand column.}

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9 Responses to My crush on verbs

  1. Mackenzie Kelly September 29, 2012 at 7:01 am #

    As I remember from HS Latin class (70 years ago) Latin verbs were the last word in most sentences and sometimes contained the subject. Did waiting for the action (or inaction) make for a more dramatic syntax? If so, will this practice make for a more dramatic sentence in English? Or did you cover this in your new book?

  2. Mackenzie Kelly October 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    I received the new book and I will try to answer my own question. Many pages and did the printer use agate type?

  3. CJW November 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Some non native-speaker colleagues of mine are trying to master the various verb forms in an after work English course. They were baffled by the verb form “hop” in the following sentence:

    “Marion watched the squirrel hop from tree to tree.”

    Is there a technical explanation for why “hop” is correct instead of “hops”?

    How would the meaning change if stated, “Marion watched the squirrel hopping from treet to tree.”?

  4. Connie Hale November 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Mack, I don’t think I can answer your Latin question succinctly—or directly. Over time English verbs lost their inflections, or endings. One thing this means is that the subject isn’t indicated by the ending of the verb. Another thing it means is that over time, as we lost those inflections, word order became more important, so we usually *need* the subject right there at the beginning as a clue.

  5. Connie Hale November 18, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    CJW, this is a fascinating question and I can’t say that I cover such a sentence in my book. But I’m thinking that the situation you describe is similar to that of a causative verb. Here’s what I say about those:

    Causative verbs kick another verb into action. They cause something else to happen, as in the sentence *His Tiffany’s credit line made Newt Gingrich lose credibility.* It’s the verb *made* that causes Gingrich’s plunging credibility. Causative verbs include, among others, let, help, require, get, convince, hire, encourage, force.
    Causative verbs are often followed by a direct object, followed in turn by an infinitive, as in the sentence *The political pooh-bahs in Alabama allow all voters to join their primary. *The causative verbs have, make, and let, though, are followed by a direct object and then an infinitive with the preposition to shaved off. Here’s an example: Mitt Romney had his aides scrub all references to Massachusetts health care.

    *Watch* doesn’t make my list of causative verbs, but I see on ( that “verbs of perception” and “causative verbs” are linked in terms of this syntactic pattern. In your first sentence, the subject is Marion, the verb watch, and the DO is squirrel. Hop is an infinitive with “the preposition to saved off.”

    In your second sentence, I would say that “hopping” is a participle–a verb acting as an adjective. “Hopping from tree to tree” is then an adjectival phrase modifying squirrel.

    I would love to hear from other readers whether this explanation holds up.

    • CJW November 20, 2012 at 3:20 am #

      Thanks! Methinks The explanation is quite helpful, as it explains why “Marion watched the squirrel hop…” is correct. But it doesn’t explain the struggling learner’s original question: “Why would HOPS in the same sentence be absolutely wrong”?

      I’d like to give them a mnemonic trick to understand this rather complex rule.

  6. Constance Hale November 20, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I don’t have a mnemonic for you, sorry. Let’s see if anyone else weighs in.

  7. Mackenzie Kelly November 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    Is it not a tense problem? Watched – hop , watches – hops

  8. Mackenzie Kelly November 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Hells Bells I made a joke!

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