Category Archives: Style

Thinking in Linking Verbs–Actions Speak Louder When It Comes to Verbs, and That Is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

One of the misconceptions I run into each semester deals with the idea that verbs are actions. The idea that verbs are actions is, of course, partially true, but it is commonly thought of as being entirely true. The lowly linking verb gets short coverage or is left out of the discussion of verbs when textbooks or teachers are covering them.

Linking verbs are mentioned in most textbooks when verbs are covered, but they get substantially less attention than action verbs and next to no coverage in the exercises. The end result is that students develop no real concept of what linking verbs are and how they work.

The sad, sad part of this situation is that linking verbs are probably used more often than action verbs even though there are only a handful of linking verbs compared to the legions of action verbs. There are some eight to 15 linking verbs depending upon whose count you are using, but this handful of verbs includes “to be,”  “to feel,” “to get” and a few others that are so common that they would be difficult to avoid when writing a paragraph, let alone speaking with another person for more than a minute or three.

Action verbs are sexier and tend to take over a sentence whenever and wherever they are used. That is why everyone remembers the Verb superhero from School House Rock. He gets things done and, of course, looks like this:

Verbs Shirt

Linking verbs are not so sexy, and if they had a superhero, he would look like this:

Linking verbs do nothing but set up fairly simple relationships between a subject and its complement. My Latin professor, a woman who had also earned a degree in mathematics, taught us that the logic behind most usages of linking verbs was A = B, which is undeniably some of the simplest math around. This simplicity is, however, often used against linking verbs as a way of dismissing them for their actionable brethren who have this unearned reputation for being more specific and accurate.
If students follow the common advice to use action verbs wherever possible, they do not necessarily improve their writing. Writing “I am late for the party” would be revised to read “I arrived late for the party.” Yes, the second sentence seems more specific, but it might or might not work better than the first sentence in any given context.
What the linking verb does is to slow down the thinking and make the verb presence in the sentence less important. In the first sentence the fact that the speaker was “late” is the primary focus of the sentence, while in the second sentence the verb “arrived” takes center stage. That might or might not be an improvement in the writing.

The issue is not a matter of whether one verb type is better than another. Most people know that they both work fine grammatically. What has happened, however, is that a stylistic preference for action verbs has developed into a pedagogical blind spot that is causing a good deal of confusion for our students.

What success I have had with teaching verbs has only come by teaching that there are two types of verbs in this world, action and linking. This requires two distinct definitions of verbs and two distinct discussions of how each type works. Action verbs are, of course, what the subject does, but linking verbs are the connection between the subject and a complement. Those definitions are nothing new.

The problem with teaching teaching linking verbs is that when you add this new type of verb, you also need to add a new definition of subject to your teaching. You cannot say that the subject of a linking verb performs the action of the verb since there is no action in the first place.

So teaching verbs as both linking verbs and action verbs means teaching subjects as who or what performs the action but also who or what is described through the verb. These definitions of subjects and verbs are built upon each other and require that we clarify how they work rather than focusing on the verb form we prefer while leaving the other verb to be misunderstood as often as it is used.

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Bad Writing

Dick Cavett is generally well regarded as a writer, but I am trying to understand why. I do not remember reading anything he has ever written that had not been overwritten. His recent piece “The Wrath of Grapes” in the NY TImes is typical of what I have read by him.

Like most bad writing, the nastiness of the piece exists on a number of levels. There is, of course, the obvious problem with writing about being drunk, which is a topic best covered by adolescents at MySpace or ex-boyfriends in text messages. Cavett figured the NY Times readers were missing out on the fun, so he decided to write a two-part piece on his adventures with a bottle of Scotch during the 1960s. Thanks, Dick.

Things get worse when he starts writing and comes up with this paragraph:

The mouth was a distinct displeasure. I remember saying aloud, to no one, “It tastes like I’ve eaten an assortment of larvae.” I tried to laugh but the head pain forbade any more than a murmur of self-appreciation. I made it to the sink as Vesuvius erupted.

The paragraph starts off well enough, but when Cavitt describes the larvae as an “assortment,” he has started overwriting. Most people cannot identify with eating larvae in the first place, so I doubt describing the taste as “an assortment of larvae” rather than as “larvae” is much like differentiating between the tastes of cookies-and-cream and vanilla.

Then there is the use of “forbade” which only  a nun at a grammar school in 1962 would use with a straight face. But the coup de grace is his allusion to Vesuvius, which fans of classical correspondence know quite well since it suffocated Pliny the Elder under a blanket of volcanic ash and rock.

What strikes me about Cavitt’s writing is not that its stuffed with pseudo-intellectual silliness but that it relies on diction and allusion for its sophistication. Those two rhetorical tools mark the style of Cavitt, and both are focused on words, not phrases and clauses. When Cavitt needs precision and accuracy, he reaches for individual words with multiple syllables and uses them to make himself sound worldly and well-read.

Word choice is an important part of writing well, but it is only a small part of good style and has the danger of leading to overwriting. Having an ear for what sounds right means more than reaching for a thesaurus; it means being in tune to the rhythms of phrases and clauses and how they affect the style and aesthetics of the sentences and paragraphs. Good writers know this.


A Eye for Grammar and an Ear for Style

The metaphors for knowing style indicate that writing style touches on a number of different senses for aesthetics. We speak of having an ear for what sounds right as if writing were akin to music. We speak of having an eye for good writing as if it were a visual aesthetic in much the way painting or fashion are. The direct way of speaking about writing would be to comment on the structure of the grammar that goes into its composition but doing so misses so many of the effects writing style can have on a reader.

Good writing style can often be broken down into grammatical structures, but doing so tells us little about why it affects us so. Most writers usually do not set out to compose a piece with certain structures. Instead they try to tune their style to the subject matter in an intuitive matter.

This intuition is often misunderstood or ignored by much of what I have seen in the writings of those who have been trained in linguistics or those who put a good deal of value on writing grammatically.  Most linguists I have read seem to lack any sense of style but write with exquisite grammatical clarity.

Employing an understanding of grammar to compose with a distinct and effective writing style appears to be related to the functioning of what is often called meta-cognition, which involves the ability to monitor your own thinking.  Meta-cognition is much like the ability to make a judgment about the quality of effectiveness of one’s own learning or expression.

English instruction from Kindergarten through high school focuses on writing grammatically correct sentences without much attention to the effect the structure of the sentence creates.  There is nothing wrong with working on grammar in isolation from style. Doing so probably allows students a greater ability to focus on particular issues and to gain a better understanding of the mechanics behind their own writing. A problem arises when grammar instruction becomes an issue of correctness rather than issue of writing style and clarity of thought.


Thinking In and About Phrases

Phrases are probably the most essential unit of language but so little is written about them.

One of my professors at UC Irvine wrote a books called The Differend, which placed the phrase not just at the center of writing but at the center of what is. Doing this always struck me as somewhat odd since words were smaller units and letters even smaller still. But he was not writing about the units we have broken our language down into as much as he was writing about the units of thought.

We just do not think word by word. We think in phrases and sometimes in clauses. This is where I think much of the discussion and instruction in grammar misses the mark. Without a doubt we run into problems at the level of individual words. We misspell words, not phrases and clauses. We look up words in the dictionary, not phrases and clauses. We search for just the right word, but rarely struggle with just the right phrase or clause. And we mock people who misuse words in the speech, not people who speak in phrases or dependent clauses.

People who write well tend to be able to compose not in words or even in sentences but in phrases that come to mind. I do not think in words. That would be silly and would result in a fairly scatter brained approach to both thinking and writing. And I do not usually think in well developed clauses. I usually do not know, for example, how a sentence is going to end when I have begun writing it. My mind thinks phrase by phrase. It might have words at its disposal and some notion of what kind of clause is going to come out at the end of all this cognition, but my thoughts tend to find themselves connecting phrase to phrase.

The centrality of phrases in thought can probably best be seen in the corrections we make to our own writing. There are usually a few errors in usage or spelling we correct as we compose, but it is far more common to erase or move or add whole phrases.

For this reason I see grammar instruction as misguided when it spends so much time on correcting the usage of words rather than the composition of phrases. We focus too much on the correctness of words rather than the style of the clauses and phrases that we write. Our thinking and our selves are not so well shown by the words we choose as they are by the phrases and clauses we use.

By moving away from words and on to phrases and clauses, we cannot get away from the issues of style that these units of writing bring up. It is in style that we probably have a better chance of getting students to think about how they think and how they write. Word choice has a good deal to do with style, but words also bring baggage with them. They are more often going to be corrected for being right or wrong. If we spend more time on phrases and clauses, we can spend more time on style and how it affects the reception of our writing. Style becomes the organizing principle of grammar.


Words Do Matter, But Not That Much

The most important elements of grammar have less to do with words than most people seem to think. Making correct word usage less important would allow grammar instruction to start working with the structure of our thinking and the development of our writing style.

The correct usage of words makes up a great deal of grammar instruction, but a word alone means next to nothing without the words immediately surrounding it. Most people think and speak in phrases and clauses, not words. Music works in much the same way in that a note suggests very little in nearly all cases, but a few played together create a tune and our minds begin to pay attention and hum the tune that musical phrase suggested.

When students become more adept at utilizing phrases and clauses, much of writing becomes significantly easier. The odd thing is that as grammar instruction progresses beyond identifying the basic parts of speech students are often encouraged to focus more and more on specialized issues with words rather than moving on to issues with phrases and clauses. They are essentially encouraged to become lexicographers rather than writing stylists.

This turns the focus away from the production of ideas and the communication of information and towards the generation of words. Many students who want to write well often get the mistaken idea that the use of unfamiliar vocabulary is the surest way to do so.

Many grammar books and blogs encourage this approach by focusing on the usage of words rather than the effects of style. They often explain the complex histories of words and their uses with an enviable precision. The Gramarphobia blog, for example, does an excellent job of responding to questions and explaining particular issues that students and professionals run into quite frequently. The blog is undeniably one of my favorites because it is well written and shows a sense humor about these nuances between words and their quirky histories. But I also wonder how useful it is for students who want to write well rather than use certain words correctly.

Even when it is done incredibly well and with a playful and disarming style, such an approach to grammar can be quite intimidating, even for someone with a degree or two in English. For someone with limited knowledge of grammar and no real interest in the minutiae of the English language, grammar instruction becomes a long procession of rules for when to use “it’s” rather than “its” or when to use “lie” rather than “lay.”

These distinctions in word usage are important to grammar instruction but only if they come up frequently enough in most people’s writing. Too often they do not. The writing problems that come up more often for students and professionals deal with issues of phrases and clauses and are more closely connected to issues of style. These issues are always rooted in grammar, but to become better writers, students need to understand how their thoughts are constructed and can be reconstructed with phrases and clauses, and to develop that knowledge means developing an understanding of how grammar and style work together.