Last month, I
published a review
of a fun book all about verbs, and I thought I’d post it here too.
sentences are all missing something, and for that reason, they’re not terribly
informative or interesting. So what is it that is absent?
Now you might be
yawning at this stage, filled with half-forgotten and not very pleasant
memories of English class and bewildering discussions about parts of speech.
But hold on a moment. As Constance Hale points out in her enjoyable new book,
Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, verbs are the
“pivot point of every sentence” (p. 10). They “put action in scenes, show
eccentricity in characters, and convey drama in plots. They give poetry its
urgency. They make quotes memorable and ads convincing.” (p. 10)
The way each chapter
in Hale’s book works is that she takes on a topic (voice or tense, for
example), explains what is challenging about it (this is the “vex” of the
title), demolishes a common belief about verbs (“hex”), encourages readers to
get rid of a bad habit (“smash”), and educates readers about new things to try
(“smooch”). She offers activities (“Try, Do, Write, Play”) and uses quotations from both literary and
popular writing to exemplify her ideas.
For example, in one
vex, she explicates verbals, which “don’t change with time…don’t express
voice…have no moods. They are bona fide verbs: they can be modified by adverbs
and they can take objects and complements. But in sentences they don’t act like
verbs.” (pp. 224-5) To demonstrate participles, she quotes Dickens’ depiction
of Scrooge as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous
old sinner!” (p. 227)
In a hex, she tells us
to “reject the rule “Always use Standard English”” (p. 117), and she speaks up
for the use of dialect, as in Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman”. In
another, she dismisses the idea that we shouldn’t use double negatives (pp.
96-7). In other words, don’t don’t. Got it?
One smash she offers
suggests that long words can be too “pompous, highfalutin, and abstract” and
she recommends avoiding “bequeath, commence, conjoin, interrogate, and
remunerate” (p. 80). I personally don’t agree, because I think there are texts
and situations where such words are needed – they presumably wouldn’t exist if
they weren’t useful – but I do take her point that people sometimes try to
write or speak in an unnecessarily complex way. In another smash, she discusses
the challenges inherent in phrasal verbs, such as differ from and differ with
Hale recommends the
imperative – in other words, order such as “Just do it!” – in one smooch (p.
194), and nuance in another, by which she means in part understanding the
difference between commonly interchanged words, such as careen, career and
carom (p. 286-8).
The book comes with a
number of appendices, such as recommendations for dictionaries, a list of
irregular verbs (did you remember that the past tense of abide is abode, and
did you know that tread becomes trod, which then becomes have trodden?),
information on challenging words (what’s the difference between raise, raze,
and rear, and when do you use behove?), and an analysis of the history of
language. I would have appreciated an index, though.
This is definitely not
the grammar book you might remember from your school days. Vex, Hex, Smash,
Smooch is easy to dip into at will, and it offers useful information,
activities, and suggestions that will help any writer. Hale is an opinionated
and witty guide to the weird and wonderful world of verbs.
Just buy it! Or don’t