A sampling of especially fetching, and frustrating, action words
Two chapters and three appendices in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch exist to help you sort out and sift through some of the trickiest verbs in English. They might be verbs with irregular past-tense forms. They might be phrasal verbs, action words that change depending on the adverb or preposition they hitch up with. They might be verbs that are often used, misused, abused, and confused. These are the headache verbs.
But for every headache verb there is a heavenly one: a term that is endlessly rich and carries mysterious power. It may be a word whose meaning has shifted over time, so that it has many different layers of meaning. We want to understand them all, and to select the perfect verb for every sentence.
I will use this space to showcase both heavenly verbs and headache verbs, rotating a different set of verbs in every couple of months. Some of these verbs appear in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, some of them appear only here.
I wanted to start with phrasal verbs, those vexing verbs that come packaged with a particle. (In a phrasal verb, a particle—a little adverb or preposition—hitches a ride with a verb and changes its meaning in the process.) Please feel free to send me your favorites—and your nemeses.
(New batch, added 2/28/13)
Conspire together. Unless you have multiple personalities, you can’t conspire with yourself—which is why pairing together with conspire is pretty useless.
Continue on. Neither a widow, her deceased husband, nor the rented hearse can continue back. So why make a point to say they’re continuing on?
Cut back. Cut back has its place (especially when you want an intransitive verb), but ask yourself: Does it streamline prose more than reduce?
Cut back on. Since cut alone means to remove completely, cut back on means to reduce. Although it’s not redundant, this phrase is a little clunky.
Cut down/ in/ off/ out/ up. Let’s cut to the chase: There are many ways to change the meaning of cut. We cut down our paper use in order to cut down fewer trees. Your jealous ex-boyfriend cuts in while you’re dancing with your fiancé, and upon rejection, almost causes an accident by cutting into traffic. We cut off our roommate’s hair as a prank when the electricity was cut off.
Deal with. Usage god Bryan Garner accepts this psychobabble, but I still prefer handle.
Despair of. When we despair of ever finding that other sock, we are totally giving up hope.
Dial up. Gained currency in the Internet age. Redundant for dial.
Dialogue with. Psychobabble for talk.
Differ from and differ with. Every man differs from his neighbor, but every man does not necessarily differ with (disagree with) his neighbor, says Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer. In other words, differ from means be unlike, while differ with means disagree with. Here’s a headline from the San Francisco Chronicle that got the first phrasal verb right:
“How the Shiites differ from the Sunnis—it’s theological.”
And here’s a sentence that uses the second phrasal verb correctly:
“A wind surfer might differ with his surfing buddy over where to find the perfect wave.”
Not to confuse things, but just to add one point: differ from may also be used to denote disagreement, especially if the nature of the disagreement is thereafter specified:
“A wind surfer differs from his body-surfing buddy in preferring wind over wave.”