Archive for ‘A Piece of Advice’

March 1, 2013

On Verbs: Sink or Swim—or Walk?

Trust your verbs. Always—and if you find that you can’t trust them, fire them and get new ones. You can’t have a sentence without a verb. Verbs are not always the showiest part of a sentence, not always the part of your writing that the reader walks away remembering, but they are the hub around which all the other parts of the sentence turn. To make a comparison to music, verbs are like the chords in a song, the essential foundation that gives just the right tension and shading to the ear-catching melody of nouns and adjectives.

The fundamental importance of verb choice is sometimes hard to see clearly unless you compare the disastrous effects of the wrong verb to the strong but flexible structure given by the right verbs. To see some verbs in action, let’s look at a poem by Billy Collins. He’s one of my favorite poets—the clarity and accessibility of his word choice often stands in sharp contrast to the surprising journeys his images take the reader on.


Walking Across the Atlantic

Billy Collins


I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach

before stepping onto the first wave.


Soon I am walking across the Atlantic

thinking about Spain,

checking for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to imagine what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.


(from Sailing Alone Around the Room)


Lovely little poem, don’t you think? So we can contrast the firm, flexible structure made by good verbs with the chaos, or inflexible, impenetrable wordiness, caused by bad and unhelpful ones, let’s ruin this poem by just changing some of the verbs to similar, but much less effective, ones. With apologies to Collins:


Strolling Across the Atlantic


I stand waiting for the holiday crowd to vacate the beach

before hopping onto the first wave.


Soon I am strolling across the Atlantic

dreaming about Spain,

watching for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water keeping up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will snooze on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to visualize what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet showing up suddenly and vanishing.


Well, yuck, right? It’s not meaningless, but it’s not poetry any more. Everything’s either gone flat, or gone silly. See how “stand waiting” adds an unnecessary word and changes the simple, deft stroke of “wait” to a two-word phrase with a clunky –ing ending? See how “strolling,” which might appeal to us at first as a more interesting action than “walking,” just made things far too silly and egotistical, in contrast to the determined but everyday tone that the original poem had with “walking”? See how “watching” in the second stanza gave the narrator an over-anxious Captain Ahab attitude, in addition to adding a third word beginning with ‘w’ to that line, overwhelming the subtle, wispy alliteration Collins intended with “whales, waterspouts”? See how “to visualize” in the third stanza is so much more wordy and businesslike and less dreamy than “to imagine”?

I could have changed the verbs much more subtly and still spoiled the poem. On the other hand, it could have been worse: I didn’t throw in any nasty passive-voice constructions like “I felt my weight as it was held by the water” that invert the usual clearer order of doer of the action followed by receiver of the action: “I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.” Picking ineffective verbs—too wordy or too extreme—can keep your writing tied to the ground. Or, to stay in the world of this poem, the surface tension created by the verbs that keeps you on top of the water collapses, and you sink into the waves like the rest of humanity, splashing about in a sea of unhelpful language.

Our choices with verbs are more limited than other word choices in English. When choosing a noun or an adjective, we often have dozens of alluring options. But finding the right verb for a situation has a pleasure all its own. While they are sometimes less flashy than the adjectives or the nouns—I’m more likely to remember the “whales” and “waterspouts” than that the narrator was “checking” for them—they set the tone in a way that nouns and adjectives simply cannot. “Checking” is the same thing we do when crossing the street—it’s casual, almost thoughtless. In our mind’s eye, we see the narrator turning his head every now and then to look right and left for a whale’s back or a spout of water, as if for an oncoming car at a crosswalk—just in case. We get the sense that the narrator has done this before. He has walked across the Atlantic so many times that it’s as habitual as crossing a street with light traffic. He has dealt with the fantastic so many times that to him, it’s just an everyday occurrence. This is the essential tension of the poem—the contrast between the supernatural journey taken and the simple, confident word choice of the narrator. It allows this poem to retain its mystery and offer up new pleasures even after many repeated explorations. Verbs can take you across the Atlantic—as long as they’re the right ones.

October 3, 2011

A Piece of Advice: Commas

Commas are a pain.  Many people learn to use them through rule-based teaching.  Unfortunately (in this case), adolescents tend to resist rules and to take exceptions as opportunities to cast doubt on the whole process.  A significant shift in perspective occurs when the young writer realizes the connection between the reading experience and the writing experience.  That realization requires several conditions to be in place: the writer’s confrontation with the physical and metaphysical reality of the reader, and the writer understanding that something beyond a grade is at stake (this is no longer “performance” or “practice”).

When those conditions are in place, the writer is ready to begin writing from her reader’s perspective.  That means always thinking about how the probable reader will react to each element of the construction.  How might the reader understand this thought, this word, this piece of punctuation?  The probable reader becomes an active interpreter of the rules.  Exceptions are understood to be necessary–useful in limiting meaning.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of why the “comma plus conjunction” rule exists:

I went to the store to buy bread and milk was on sale.

I have seen countless examples of this problem.  The countless examples were in college student writing (mostly first-year students).  Many of the writers who produced this type of confusion also demonstrated, in other places, that they knew the rule.  The errors tended to occur in places where the ideas being expressed were relatively simple (un-complex).  Such a situation suggests that when the writers were forced to pay attention to their constructions, they punctuated more effectively.  Punctuating effectively means reducing as much as possible the number of possible meanings any given expression can have.  Indeed, that can serve as a definition of “good writing” in general.  In the above example, as I read linearly, I read “milk” as an object of the action “buy.”  However, when I move to the next word, I am forced to read “milk” as a subject for the verb “was.”  At this point, I stop reading and become irritated.  Perhaps irrationally, I continue to be irritated at the writer long after I’ve made sense out of the sentence.  If I signal the reader that “milk” is only a subject, then all is good:

I went to the store to buy bread, and milk was on sale.

Then we have the exception:

I went to the store to buy bread and I ran into Joe.

This is pretty much the same grammatical structure.  The only difference is the use of “I” as the subject to the second clause.  The word “I” is the ultimate subject.  It will never be confused for an object.  The comma in the following sentence, then, is unnecessary:

I went to the store to buy bread, and I ran into Joe.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.  The comma does provide some separation, some isolation, for each of the ideas within the sentence.  If that isolation is desired, then the comma should be used.

Mastery of the language is not achieved through chapter-and-verse knowledge of the rules.  Rather, mastery is achieved when the writer thinks through the effect of each word and punctuation choice, customizing the delivery so that confusion is minimized and intended information is maximized.

And how do you know the probable reader?  Get feedback on your writing.  Schedule an appointment with the Writing Center.

PS: I find it chortlesome that immediately below this wordpress post editing window, there is a link to “Request Feedback.”