Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax, has an entertaining new book out called Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. Verbs, she writes, are "vital, vibrant, voluptuous, and, yes, sometimes vexing." In this excerpt, Hale focuses on choosing the right verbs, and avoiding getting confused by "headache verbs."
Language is multifaceted. It includes the eloquence of the elite and the noise of the hoi polloi. It covers ragged dialects, immigrant patois, and urban slang. It welcomes professional jargons, code words, and coders' words. It can be formal or colloquial, standard or non-, grammatically correct or regionally kinky.
English in particular sucks up words from all corners of the globe, then finds ways of lengthening, shortening, blending, and bending words. Neologisms keep creeping into the common lexicon: gadget probably came from late nineteenth-century sailors' slang, scrounge was popularized by soldiers in World War I, square (as an adjective) came from jazzmen's slang, and wangle wangled its way into the world of Standard English from the world of printers.
Many words once considered "vulgar" — banter, coax, flimsy, flippant, sham, mob,and snob — are now bona fide bon mots. Prefixes and suffixes sail in and out of fashion, leaving us verbs like cybersquat, debug, downsize, privatize,and unfriend.
Vocabulary is not all that changes in the linguistic melting pot. Punctuation changes. Spelling changes. Meaning changes. Even grammar changes.
For a writer all this can be quite confusing. On the one hand, we want to guard against plain-Jane verbs, pompous verbs, loosey-goosey verbs, or verbs that are just ugly. On the other hand, we are encouraged to swing a little, not to be a priss, to keep alert to lively lingo and hilarious coinages.
Choosing the right verb, the perfect gem, does not always mean being highbrow or writing for a literary audience. It requires understanding what's right for your piece, what serves your purposes. Many of our best literary figures mix high and low, whether it's to get into the head (or into the mouth) of a character or to craft a distinctive narrative voice.
One writer who plays subversively with usage is the Dominican-American Junot Díaz. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz mixes postmodern spit with postcolonial vinegar in a story featuring Oscar, a 245-pound "ghetto nerd." (The "Wao" of the title is a sly mispronunciation of Wilde, as in that other Oscar.) Díaz uses street-smart Spanglish in his narration but an almost academic voice in his copious footnotes. ("Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. . . . His power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined.") About Oscar's ill-fated romance with a woman who tells him, first, that her boyfriend is a policeman and, second, that they shouldn't spend so much time together, Díaz writes:
A jealous Third World cop boy-friend? Maybe we shouldn't spend so much time together? Any other nigger would have pulled a Scooby-Doo double take — Eeuoooorr? — would have thought twice about staying in Santo Domingo another day. Hearing about the capitán only served to depress him, as did the spend-less-time crack. He never stopped to consider the fact that when a Dominican cop says he wants to meet you he ain't exactly talking about bringing you flowers.
In this passage Díaz pulls out ghetto usages, pop culture references (Scooby-Doo), and straight Spanish (capitán), while still managing to get the hyphens right in his compound adjective (spend-less-time).
Not all of us can do a Díaz, but anyone who wants to make a career out of writing ought to take full advantage of the histories, mysteries, and metaphors embedded in words.
One hundred years of grammatude
For centuries, the way people used language was a clue to their class and education. As literacy rose, so did the number of books telling proles how to spell straight, stay grammatical, and use well-bred words. In 1864, one of the first formal usage books appeared on the scene: A Plea for the Queen's English by Henry Alford, dean of Canterbury. It was followed fifty years later by The King's English, written by the brothers H. W. and F. G. Fowler. And in 1926, the older Fowler (H. W.) published A Dictionary of Modern English. (You've seen his name in these pages — Fowler had strong opinions, an engaging writing style, and the patience to compile a fat volume of guidance.)
Despite Fowler, attitudes toward language and usage began to change in the twentieth century, as class distinctions faded and linguists came along to explore how language works rather than dictate how to use it correctly. That doesn't mean that usage experts didn't keep publishing books to boss us around and try to keep our prose polite.
But no matter how many books come out, people still confuse affect and effect, misuse comprised, and wonder whether lucking out is a good thing or a bad.
Reprinted from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. Copyright © 2012 by Constance Hale. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.