Building better sentences: Connie Hale on verbs, nouns, Vikings, scenes, geekspeak, grammar wars and rewiring bad lines
In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, her new book on writing and language, journalist and writing teacher Constance Hale explores the world of verbs. Hale, a Hawaii native who lives in San Francisco, is the author of Sin and Syntax and Wired Style, and recently wrapped up an eight-part series on sentences, “Draft,” for the New York Times’ Opinionator section. The former copy chief at Wired, Hale has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Smithsonian, Health and Honolulu. She ran the former Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and the Nieman Narrative Digest, a precursor to Storyboard. On Saturday, she’ll host the East Meets West literary journalism conference at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, featuring speakers including The New Yorker’s Alan Burdick, the Los Angeles Times’ Thomas Curwen, Wired’s Bill Wasik, travel writer Bonnie Tsui and Crown editor Vanessa Mobley.
In Thursday’s post, we offered highlights of Vex and described the book as a braided history of the English language; pass/fail case studies from newspapers, magazines, fiction and even advertising; a technician’s guide to how sentences actually work, plus inspirational takeaways, a short history of dictionaries and snippets from Twitter and Facebook conversations. Today, read our conversation with Hale, which ranges from the history of the English language to the quickest fix for bad sentences. Oh, and: Vikings.
What’s the genesis of this book?
I thought I’d said everything I needed and wanted to say about style, but as I thought about it more I had a bunch of unanswered questions about verbs. The verb is just the key − the linchpin. By focusing on the verb I realized I’d be able to answer some really big questions that I had. And one thing that I wanted to do more of, that I hadn’t had a chance to do in the previous book, was linguistics research, on the history of English. And so it all kind of came together as a book with layers to it: One is linguistics – how does the sentence really tick? The second layer is the history of English and what that tells us about the understandings and the misunderstandings that are prevalent in the world of writing. The third is a grammatical and syntactical layer, sort of everything you need to know about verbs. And, then pervading all those layers, is a fourth layer: What is style? What is writer’s voice and how do we control both?
What questions did you have and what got answered?
I had a hunch both as a writer and an editor that it’s all about the verb. It was an intuition or maybe even something cognitive after years of writing and editing: If there’s a problem in the sentence, you fix it by going to the verb. Whenever I hit a muddy passage that’s how I straighten things out. So I had this hunch about the centrality of the verb and I wanted to test that hunch. You learn in grade school that the components of the sentence are the subject and the verb, so I wanted to test that, because so much of what we learn about grammar is wrong. I wanted really to understand the relationship between nouns and verbs. Another question that I had: Why do linguists look so scathingly at grammarians? And why do grammarians look so scathingly at the history of English? Why is there a divide? And why is there such passion on each side of the divide? I’ve always tried to walk right down the middle: I don’t care about the rules and I don’t like loosey-goosey language. All I care about is what makes great writing. I’ve noticed that if you walk down the middle you can get pies thrown at you from both sides. So I wanted to find out more about linguistics because I’d never studied it. In fact, I had this kind of impostor syndrome because I write about linguistics but had never studied linguistics. But I was also really curious about this passionate debate, which became Chapter 4 in the book, called “The Grammar Wars,” which is basically about the five-centuries-long debate about English, starting, you could say, with Jonathan Swift.
How did you do the linguistic research? Was it thrilling?
“Thrilling.” That is an interesting adjective. I joke that the whole time I was doing the linguistic research I was overcome by sleepiness every day. I would literally close my office door at The Grotto (in San Francisco) and take a nap, that’s how thrilling the linguistic research was. There’s a reason I’m not an academic and a reason I haven’t studied linguistics. It’s boring! So I had read some Stephen Pinker and I was lucky enough to find Christine Kenneally’s book, which is a book about linguistics written for the layperson, so that kind of introduced me to the key figures and ideas in contemporary modern linguistics. But then I went to the Library of Congress, called a reference librarian and said, “What’s the best book on linguistics if I just need to orient myself?” and she pointed me in the direction of one book –
It’s Victoria Fromkin (and Robert Rodman, An Introduction to Language) and a lot of David Crystal, this incredibly prolific British linguist. So I just started. One book leads you to another. One thing I ended up finding my way to was some evolutionary biology. Some of the really interesting research to me right now is in trying to figure out what the first word was, and how language started. I ended up at a guy named Derek Bickerton, who’s a creolist. The reason he studies creole is because we learn a lot about language by studying the transition from a pidgin to a creole. Now this becomes really interesting to me because I grew up in Hawaii, speaking creole, speaking two languages. So it’s like oh, cool, that fits with a lot of ideas that I have about nonstandard and standard language, which are somewhat iconoclastic and grow out of my experience on the north shore of Oahu. So I start reading Bickerton and I find out he’s a retired professor at the University of Hawaii. I email my mom and she’s like, “Derek Bickerton lives in our hometown.” You have to understand, my hometown is tiny. And she’s like, “Oh, and he speaks at the library sometimes.” So I’m home and I call Derek Bickerton — and he lives on the road that I grew up on. I grew up on this little tiny one-mile-long, pitted, not a dirt road but a very bad asphalt road, along this little strip of beach that nobody knows about, and Derek Bickerton ends up living next door to the kids I went trick-or-treating with. It’s funny, the way research – you know, you’re reading and it ignites a passion and it takes you somewhere. It all goes to my attempt to understand the very basic dynamic of the sentence. And this one other thing. I’ve always thought about interjections because every other part of speech relates to something else in the sentence, and the interjection is like this free radical that pops in wherever it wants, and you can put it in or take it out, and it’s not syntactically related but we call it a part of speech. It turns out interjections are basically a vestige of that protolanguage. Interjections are what we started with.
So we’re being primitive when we interject.
Yeah! Yeah! Pretty much.
And those are the things that get edited out of copy typically – copyeditors remove interjections. They’re considered informal and improper but I think that’s so cool, that they’re older and give us this clue about something really deep in language. As you can see from the book, I spend a lot of ink talking about standard and nonstandard English, and that’s been a consistent fascination of mine. Wired Style was really about trying to understand geek speak and this new language that was considered really cool by some people and really off by others. And then Sin and Syntax obviously the title itself encodes this paradox that fascinates me. So I’m just fascinated by paradox and language and the edges of language, and what some people consider the pure and correct language.
What’s the most surprising thing that you learned?
This grammar war, this push and pull over who owns language, became fascinating to me. I had kind of gotten a whiff of it in my earlier research but I got more than a whiff in this batch. I just learned more about it. And then I’d say the other thing that surprised me – again, it wasn’t a surprise because a lot of times I was following a hunch and the hunch was confirmed, but I had read and noticed in books on writing this commandment: Prefer the Anglo-Saxon word. I’d noticed this romanticization of Anglo-Saxon. Whenever I see something repeated over and over it starts to feel like a platitude and I start to be suspicious. As someone who grew up speaking a creole, it didn’t make sense to me. I grew up throwing Japanese, Hawaiian words, all kinds of words, into my sentences, and I knew those words made my sentences better and more colorful. I knew from having reported on the languages that coders and techies use that oftentimes nonstandard speech is more interesting. I love slang. I love highbrow language and I love lowbrow language. So I wondered where this idea came from. It was this meme: Prefer the Anglo-Saxon. It just didn’t comport with what I knew about English and how I use English and how I saw writers using English. So first of all you go back and look at the people who are saying it. So, H.W. Fowler in 1926, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, was the bible for much of the 20th century. Then you go to Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Then you go to Strunk and White, everyone’s favorite style manual. And then you go to William Zinsser, he says it. This is the kind of thing that excites my curiosity. So I did a lot of research on the history of English and the truth is, from 500 AD to 1000 AD our language was Anglo-Saxon but it already had other languages mixed in because there were Celts in the British Isles before there were Anglos and Saxons; the Romans had marched up in 50 BC and conquered the British Isles and left a lot of Latin words in their wake; oh, and let’s not forget the Vikings! They kept coming down and invading and they left words, too. So already even old English was a stew. Then of course in 1066 the Normans come over and they bring French. Oh, and the Danes were down there and invaded and took over a part of England and gave us words like freckle and take. Which is like one of our major verbs. So there was something suspicious to this pronouncement and it was fascinating to me to learn all these words that came from different places, and to see how English was twisted and pulled over time. Its most wonderful characteristic is that it changes easily and sucks up new words easily. We have a way of manipulating words and smashing words together, which is called compounding by grammarians, and it’s in our linguistic DNA. Innovation is in our linguistic DNA, and combination is in our linguistic DNA. So to me that’s really interesting when you look at things like LinkedIn and Stumbleupon. You look at these things that some people think are really cool and you say, “Well, Chaucer was doing something like that back in the 1300s.” Shakespeare took nouns and turned them into verbs. Now today you hear people say Google is a noun, not a verb, but it’s kind of like, so what? We’ve always done this! Don’t tell me that we can’t turn nouns into verbs. We’ve been doing it forever.
How might this kind of knowledge change the way we write?
The ultimate goal of my book is to make writers and readers more sophisticated. It’s not to make it clear what’s right and wrong, it’s to make people appreciate nuance a little more. If you understand some of these things about English you’re kind of more open. I’m trying to get people to notice words and understand words. If they’re readers I’m trying to excite them enough about language so that they can get more from the text; if they’re writers I’m trying to excite them enough that they’ll play a little more and feel they have license to do more exploration, and feel they have some guidance in choosing. The point isn’t to go ahead and use whatever word you want and the more kind of odd and interesting the better; that’s actually not true. Writing is a conversation between the reader and the writer, and I’d just like to make both sides of that equation more sophisticated.
You read a lot for this book, obviously, across media. As a researcher and as a teacher, what are the biggest mistakes you see narrative journalists, or any journalists, make?
The biggest one is a lack of precision. I think all of us struggle so much just to get our ideas out on paper in a way that’s cogent – and that’s a hard struggle. Sometimes we don’t do the fourth or fifth or sixth step, which is to go back and look at our sentences and look at every single noun. Have you chosen default nouns? Have you forgotten that every noun represents a choice to you as a writer? Similarly with verbs. Those are the only words I think you should spend the time going back – if you’re stripping out what’s not necessary and straightening out the syntactic kinks, it comes down to nouns and verbs. So straightening out the sentences and then asking yourself – I mean how many times have you written the word house without even thinking about it? The possibilities are endless: bungalow, cabin, crashpad, condo, Tudor, Victorian. There are so many possibilities there that make the noun more precise and more visual and help your reader see the thing. The same thing is true with verbs. Most of us, the grand default verb is is. We talk in “ises” and “ares” and “weres,” and we often express our ideas with that verb. But that’s the ultimate boring verb. By choosing – I call them static verbs – you’re missing the opportunity to tell a little drama. What I want writers to understand is that every sentence is a little drama. There’s a subject, a predicate; there’s a protagonist and a predicament. When you use static verbs you’re depriving your sentences of that. Sometimes you want the verb to be quiet; you don’t need a lot of action. Just that can help in so many ways. It perks the writing up. The verbs are more interesting. It adds drama to the sentence. And it allows us clarity in a paragraph. So if you can focus on your subject and keep that subject of every sentence in a paragraph more or less consistent, that’s how you get focus. When we have paragraphs that start to seem muddy it’s because every sentence starts with a new subject, and the writer does not yet have command of the idea or the story. And this comes so out of my love for storytelling and narrative journalism: On one level we’re trying to express ideas but if we’re trying to tell a story we need to be thinking in terms of protagonist and predicament. That needs to go all the way down to the sentence level. You can think on a really big level, like I’m writing this magazine story and I need characters and scenes. Right? Character, scene and plot. Well, that’s true in the story writ large. But the story writ small is at the sentence level. You need character, scene and plot at the sentence level too. That’s precision. You can’t apply it to every sentence but it’s basically what we’re doing.
How about some good examples?
In Chapter 5, there’s a scene by Jo Ann Beard, and it’s such a brilliant demonstration for every narrative journalist about what can happen in scenes and how you can use language. Even though it’s a piece of fiction, look at the first paragraph, and it’s very quiet. They’re sitting in a boat and nothing is happening yet; they’re waiting and most of the verbs are static. Then the next paragraph the day starts to break, and look what happens with the verbs.
Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive, like pale replicas of their real selves. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.
It is five a.m. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.
As readers we’ll read a passage like that and we know it’s wonderful but we don’t know why; as writers we have to know exactly why. It’s because the writer decided to have the verbs wake up. As the writer you are, in a very subtle way, sending almost subliminal signals to your reader. The other thing, at the very beginning of Chapter 7, about the passive voice – it’s my favorite chapter, by the way – there’s a passage from Jonathan Raban showing how he uses both the active voice and the passive voice perfectly. He talks about land that has been acted upon by man, and uses passive voice to do that. Sometimes where language comes into narrative journalism is where the real master craftsman can underscore elements of the story – elements of plot, elements of theme – through a really careful use of language, and moderating language and sentences. Moderating the length of sentences, and tone. Tone and voice are very important in narrative journalism. I like talking about the writer as narrator, and calibrating your voice and tone through language. For example, the mood chapter – it’s one way to affect tone in a piece. A lot of pretty sophisticated writers, tone and voice are intuitive; they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. So what I’m trying to do is say: Try this.
Can you give us five quick ways the average writer can improve his or her writing?
First, read more and write more. The other thing you can do is change static verbs into dynamic verbs, and make the dynamic verbs better. If you only had one thing, that would be it. For narrative journalists, another thing is to think of character in a whole new way: How can I portray character not through physical description that relies on, “He has blue eyes, blah blah,” but by taking a moment and watching your subject. Watch the way the subject moves. Watch the way a subject does a mundane thing. Notice the ways the subject’s words tumble out – or don’t. Try to think of the subject moving through actions. That can be a very powerful way to convey character in few words. Sometimes it’s helpful to think if that character were an animal, what animal would he be? How does that animal move? You don’t have to compare the person to an animal but it’s helpful to kind of get the psychological and the physical together. Another thing, when you’re doing a scene, even if nothing is happening, you can use dynamic verbs. The next thing would be length of sentences and rhythm of sentences: Do you want short, crisp, staccato sentences or longer, lyrical ones that have a lot of participles and gerunds and things that elongate the sentence? Just kind of play. And then the last thing is the idea of the narrator: Who am I as the narrator? Do I want to write things in the indicative voice, which is kind of neutral and I’m there as a neutral observer; or do I want to write in the first person; or do I want to write in the imperative?
There’s a lot of texture in the book – you’ve incorporated social media, for instance, and how we communicate in 140-character bursts, and how we communicate on Facebook, whether we’re using present tense, for instance, or sentence fragments –
Advertising, too. How is a slogan funny? There are a lot of lessons for writers in effective social media posts. But also we’re doing it all the time as a way to practice. It’s part of the writing process, if you want to make it that. It’s not just a tweet; it’s, “Hmm, how can I craft something meaningful?” I’m fascinated by the notion of meaning, ultimately, and I think the rap against social media is the cliché of “what I had for breakfast,” that it’s meaningless communication. I’m pretty intrigued by how we can turn that around and make it meaningful, what posts you write that people respond to because it elicits a response from people. I’m sorry that Facebook has become so photo driven. Twitter is still text. But I look at it as a practice. In narrative journalism, it’s really a practice. There are so many elements to the practice. There are paces you put yourself through in the reporting, to get the telling detail that an average journalist wouldn’t do, and there are things you do in crafting and structuring. Sometimes we don’t put ourselves through those paces in the actual writing. And we should. But we should be doing that when we’re tweeting, when we’re posting to Facebook. There’s an opportunity all the time to be more aware of language.