Don’t Be a Verb Weenie!

Passive, active; intransitive, transitive—whatever you label them within context, verbs are amazing creatures! They fill our stories with zest, with tang, with spice, with punch…if chosen well, of course!

It’s unfortunate that so many students of writing find verbs a mystery to use properly. Believe me, I have been editing manuscripts a long time, and many of my clients view verbs the same way an old man might view an ancient, towering maple tree. He wants to climb it as he once did in his youth; he wants to master the tree and feel the roughness of the bark against his thighs, and listen to the rustling of fresh, cool, green leaves as they tickle the back of his neck. But in the end, he walks away, feeling mildly defeated, too fearful to make the attempt to climb.

Now, of course, this is the point where my illustration falls apart; only a wise old man knows he shouldn’t attempt to climb a large old tree, but as writers we know we should make every attempt to understand our language better and use it masterfully in our writing–in other words, no matter what our age, we must climb that tree! The old man, on the other hand, might look jaunty and brave to the neighbors as he gives a little hop and grasps the first branch he can reach, but if he can hoist his old self onto that branch, he’ll probably fall and break his neck soon thereafter. Not so with the writer who bravely studies the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs! If you take some time to study verbs, squeamish as you might feel at first, you will find yourself a better writer–and that’s always worth the trouble. Besides, think of how intelligent you will look to friends, family, and foes when you can carry on a conversation about transitive and intransitive verbs!  You will definitely adopt a jaunty air, and your circle of acquaintances will all be so jealous (especially your foes, believe me)!

If you will be brave (and I know you want to be) you will take care to pick up the right book on verbs so that you won’t become discouraged in your studies. You must be fearless if you want to write well. You cannot be a verb weenie! I’ve seen first-hand the colorlessness that a rigid adherence to the rules of grammar can bring a story, and I’ve read the very texts that bring on the fear of experimentation which causes this colorlessness in so many pieces of writing. I’ve been victimized by writer-friends, shamelessly hopped up on Strunk and White, who ripped every bit of “passive voice” from my writing so that in the end my work resembled an instruction manual for installing a shower head, only less exciting. But then, I’ve also seen the devil-may-care mess that comes when writers get sloppy and throw grammar into the wind because everything they’ve ever read about “active and passive” has been so technical they can’t be bothered to learn.

Constance Hale, author of the new Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, recently spoke with an interviewer,** and had a few very helpful things to say about passive verbs (what she calls “static verbs”): “I visited a journalism class in which the instructor advised students to steer clear of is going, was going, and had been going as a way of cutting static verbs out of sentences. That’s a valuable tense he’s throwing out. We need progressive forms! Why not tell students to throw out every neon highlighter and stick only to black ballpoint?”

Ms. Hale goes on to give a fantastic example of passive/static verbs in the following passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude, as translated into English by Gregory Rabassa:

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant noon when his father took him to discover ice.’

“Here,” Ms. Hale states, “in one of the greatest opening lines of literature, the passive construction captures the infinite passivity of Buendia’s situation: He is facing the firing squad, helpless against his fate, unable to act, to change; he can only remember the remotest past.”

Writing (communicating through the written word) and writing well (communicating beautifully through the written word), should not be shackled by a rigid adherence to rules, and laws, and ordinances. But, you can follow the necessary rules and still PLAY WITH WORDS, and you should! Make sure your readers understand what you are attempting to communicate, of course, but don’t worry so much about rules that you lose sight of the beauty and fun and satire and emotion that naturally blooms as you let yourself go and enjoy the writing process. Don’t allow your particular and remarkable way of expressing thoughts to be overshadowed by stiff, grammatically perfect formula—but do know your stuff. A fun way to start might be by purchasing Constance Hale’s book for writers and teachers, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. I do not know Ms. Hale and I don’t get a cut from the sale of her book (wouldn’t that be nice?), but what she said about the purpose of the book made me believe it was just the remedy for the insecurity so many writers feel in the face of the dreaded intransitive verb. She wrote that the goal of the book is not to champion “hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose…”

Anyone who knows me knows one of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of preparation I find in modern writers, modern would-be authors. Many of them don’t read enough, they don’t write enough, they don’t allow for enough constructive and honest feedback of their work. They vomit out onto the page whatever it is they feel and think, and believe that this is good enough. It is not. It’s lazy. It’s cynical. It’s not what a true writer does except in a first draft. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch was written by a woman who has fanatically studied grammar for many many years, but who has written a lively, loving look at the beauty and possibilities of language. For writers who really want their work to shine, I’m suggesting this book.

by Jean Foster Akin

**See the January 2013 edition of The Writer (Vol. 126, Issue 1) for a wonderful interview with Constance Hale.

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