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Constance Hale Has a Crush on Verbs

I am thrilled to welcome wordsmith Constance Hale, bestselling author of Sin and Syntax and the just-released Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. Constance is here to talk about … you guessed it: VERBS.

My Crush on Verbs
By Constance Hale

How can a person write a whole book, just on verbs? Is she crazy? If not, then why has no one else done it before her?

Well, I can’t answer that last question, but in preparing to write Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, which is wending its way into bookstores as I write this, I took a look at the collection of Harvard University. (Why that library? Well, I was in Cambridge at the time, but it’s also the oldest library system in the United States, the largest private library system in the world, and the fourth largest library collection in the U.S., after the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, and New York Public Library.)

Get this: Harvard’s Hollis catalog coughed up 7,291 titles. I found books on Kru verbs, Russian verbs, Tzutujil verbs, Dakota verbs, Hebrew verbs, and Welsh verbs. There was Das Verb in German. There was Alchimie du Verbe and Le Verbe Est un Navire in French. But there was no poetic “The Verb Is a Boat” in English, no prosaic one-stop shop, no Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Verbs But Were Afraid to Ask. There was no one book to help the hapless, sate the serious, or answer all the questions of the curious.

(The only titles I found were geeky and ungainly: The English verb: a grammatical essay in the didactive form, “printed for” A. Millar in 1761; The English Verb: form and meanings, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1964; and The Verb in Contemporary English: theory and description, published by Cambridge University Press in 1995. Spare me!)

The market was ripe for an entertaining book on verbs that slipped in a little erudition.

But, still, that’s not why I wanted to write a book on verbs. The truth was, I just had a lot to say about action words—about getting tense and being moody, about static sentences and dynamic ones, about the much maligned passive voice, and about all those myths out there about language generally.

After all, the verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. We can twist verbs into myriad tenses and moods to allow us to be precise about time and nuanced about intention. We can say that today we do the macarena, and that in eighth-grade dancing class we foxtrotted, and that we girls had waltzed with our doting fathers before we dared do it with boys. Unless, of course, we are planning our next trip to Buenos Aires; then we say “We will tango.” Or fantasizing, in which case we might say, “I wish I were tangoing right now.”

The verb pulses not just at the heart of our every memory, plan, and wish, but at the heart of English itself. “Verb” comes from the Latin verbum, for “word.” We can’t verbalize without verbs. And without verbs we can’t have verbal dexterity, which is what this book aims to give you: the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango.

But for all their primacy, verbs are mostly misunderstood and often misused. Writers who swear by the importance of verbs over-rely on is and use flounder when they mean founder. Editors who rail against “passive constructions” overlook the essential purpose of static verbs: to act chivalrous and open the door for the nouns in the sentence. Self-appointed experts perpetuate rules (“Prefer the Anglo-Saxon”) that have been flat wrong for centuries. (If I were preferring the Anglo-Saxon, I couldn’t use prefer.) Teachers spread misunderstandings without doing their homework, and wordsmart authors fumble details (“Verbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and linking.” Not exactly).

Wrongheaded rules have been sanctified in books and repeated by schoolteachers. Mass media gave airtime to everyone from Donald Duck to Donald Trump, and new media gave everyone if not a microphone at least a microblog. Ever new crops of “experts” (would you trust Smashwords to help you unsmash your words?) put mainstream English above marvelous English.

This is the muddle we find ourselves in today. Yet we all yearn to write well. We long to speak eloquently. We dream of moving people with our words. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is a response to this urge to master language. It all starts with the verb, the word linguist Steven Pinker calls “the little despot” of every sentence.

{Much of this post is excerpted from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. If you’d like to learn a little more about the book, check out the “The Vex, Hex Manifesto.”}

28 comments to Constance Hale Has a Crush on Verbs

  • Kristan

    – "the verb is the heartbeat of every sentence"
    – "The verb pulses not just at the heart of our every memory, plan, and wish, but at the heart of English itself."

  • I just read about this book on Norton's Tumblr (my favorite publisher). I thought to myself, "This! This is a book I must devour NOW!" Thanks for this post, Constance and Meghan.

    • meghancward

      Erin, both Sin and Syntax and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch are must-haves for every writer. Connie knows language like no one I know, and she's a great, fun, entertaining writer.

  • Gee, thanks you guys! BTW, there are a few excerpts and fun thing on my Web site ( if you want to get more of a taste of the book.

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