The Power of Verbs

Power of Verbs

Verbs are the engines that power your sentences.

Here’s an exercise that will help you learn the power of verbs.

See if you can make the following paragraph more interesting by changing the verbs. Challenge yourself to show this narrator either speeding through her day or dragging through it by the verbs you choose. If you like, post your revision in the comments below.

I got up this morning: I got dressed I got coffee and a bagel when I got gas. I got the news on the radio, and I got the mail on the way down the hall to the office. I got through my email before my ten o’clock meeting, but I got a phone call from a client so I got to the meeting late.

After the meeting I got through the HR about my health benefits, because I got a bill for my last doctor’s visit that didn’t get covered by my insurance and should have. I got a liverwurst sandwich at the deli across the street and I got red licorice at the candy store next door. I got a lot done between one and three because I got smart and turned my email and phone off. But my boss got mad because she couldn’t get through. When I told her all I got done, she got thoughtful. I got to go out to the bakery with her and got a coffee and an éclair and got a chance to tell her about all the ways I get interrupted at work and all the ways we could get more done. She got it and thanked me. I got back to my desk and got some more done before I got back in my car. Even with traffic, I got to my yoga class in time and got home feeling like I’d had a good day.

Give it a try – then show off your work and any comments about what you learned.

Always wishing you the exact word to express precisely what it is you want to say, ~Deborah.

“Fucking” is a Poor Intensifier

“Fucking” is a poor an intensifier in written non-fiction.

My objection is not one of prudishness but one of good usage. I don’t approve of using “very” as an intensifier, either (or really, or so). Saying something is “fucking unbelievable” is no better than “very unbelievable”; both lack imagination and weaken one’s prose. In the crowded blogosphere, prose with muscle is more likely to attract readers than flabby and/or overused intensifiers.

Readers depend on writers to rant with vivid language.

I think “fucking” has lost its vividness due to overuse. It’s lost its meaning and punch. Like love handles on hips, it’s flabby padding rather than taut flesh.

Lest I be written off as a member of the grammar police, I’m not. Language lives and changes with its users. Neologisms arrive (sexting, localvore) and antiquated words fade (mooncalf, quidnunc). Usage changes, too, as exemplified by the gender-neutral singular they.

Just as there’s a time and place for sex, there’s a time and a place for “fucking” in the text.

Certainly, it belongs when quoted as in, Luskin objects “to the current trend of using ‘fucking’ as an intensifier in written non-fiction.” You must use the word if you’re quoting someone else, and unlike on broadcast media, the word doesn’t have to be “bleeped” in print.

Another justified usage occurs when you’re writing fiction and it’s the language of your narrator or characters, in which case, let it rip! Some people say fucking as often as others say like, almost as a nervous tic.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of audience.

I’m sure that some of the writers who overuse “fucking” as their intensifier of choice have readers who don’t give it a second thought. But writers who want to reach an audience that includes people they don’t know, as well as people who might not agree with them, it’s better to state your ideas with clarity and precision. Personally, I want people to read what I write and object to what I say rather than to the language I’ve used.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. Her work can be found on Vermont Public Radio and on her website, where she blogs about her rural life in Living in Place and about middle age in The Middle Ages. Her award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, is a love story about two sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.

Words, words, words!

Musicians have notes; artists, colors and shapes; writers have words. Writers in English have lots of words. While it’s impossible to count the number of words in our language, linguists estimate that English contains about a million different words, two million if you add all the scientific names for things. And new words enter the language all the time; just consider “Localvore,” a noun, and “tweet,” a verb, both recent additions to a language that continually grows and shifts.

Despite this wealth, the average sixteen year old is estimated to depend on a vocabulary of ten- to twelve-thousand words; a college graduate twenty- to twenty-five thousand – a mere pittance considering the wealth of the language. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Shakespeare used 884,647 different words, made up of 29,066 distinct forms, including proper names.

What all of this means for a writer is that we have lots of raw material to work with, and if we want to express ourselves to be clearly understood, we need to learn these words and to use them. But it’s a big job, so here are some ways to build, strengthen and tone your language.

Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as well as your verbs. Verbs attract attention. Some say verbs flirt with your readers; others might argue that they do something else with your readers’ mind, another verb that begins with an f. Truth be told, verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. If you could watch a Positron Emission Tomography (a/k/a a PET scan) of the brain of someone reading your stories, it’s the verbs that would ignite the fireworks of brain activity that show up. Those green and red splotches exploding into Technicolor mark your reader’s neurotransmitters firing, ramping up her heartbeat, increasing her rate of respiration, maybe generating a little dampness in her armpits and groin. If you’re writing erotica, perhaps a little throb. Whatever it is you are writing, it’s your verbs that capture your reader’s attention.

Diction. If it’s verbs that capture attention, it’s your language, generally, that keeps it. Everyone knows the old saw, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In this day and age of the 140-character tweet, a thousand words are way too many. Try ten.

Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say “car” when you mean “rust-bucket”. There’s a world of difference between “Pops” and “Daddy”. Do you mean “sensuous” or “sinewy”? Every word is an opportunity: use it.

The best way to enlarge your vocabulary is to read – widely. Don’t read just poetry or fiction. Read science, travel, philosophy and car repair manuals. Read contemporary work and read poems, plays, novels, histories and letters from long ago. Look up words you don’t know. Enlarging your vocabulary can also be fun and games: Scrabble, Lexulous. Free Rice. Crossword puzzles. Drive your friends and family mad with puns. Play Mad-Libs. Subscribe to A Word A Day.

Just as regular work-outs at the gym increase strength and stamina, a little regular attention to diction will help you build your vocabulary muscles, tone your sentences, and make you a writer of leaner, stronger, prose.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of Into The Wilderness, a love story between sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.