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?
When I was considering writing this book, I went on a search for entertaining books on action words. The catalog at Harvard's Library coughed up 7,291 titles when I used "verbs" as my keyword, giving me books on Kru verbs, Russian verbs, Tzutujil verbs, Dakota verbs, Hebrew verbs, and Welsh verbs. There was Das Verb
in German. There was Le Verbe Est un Navire
in French. But there was no "The Verb Is a Boat" in English. There was no one book to help the hapless, sate the serious, or answer all the questions of writers like me.
But a hole in the market was not what made me want to Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch
. I just had a lot to say 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. When I was teaching I had started noticing that I was spending more and more time on verbs.
OK, I admit I'm kind of a geek. Deep down, I was dying to know whether experts would agree with my hunch about the primacy of verbs. I was curious about what the very first word of the very first speaker was. I wanted to know when babies turn from "mama" to "make me cereal!" And I wanted to bust some myths that I've seen over and over in other books on writing (like "prefer the Anglo-Saxon word"). So I gave myself a crash course in linguistics, digging into the linguistic underpinnings of language, the tumultuous history of Anglo-Saxon, the flawed history of grammar, and the wrong-headed ideas of many well-meaning teachers.
In addition to being a sucker for this historical stuff, I'm a fiend about literary style. I sweat over every word in my own copy and love watching sentences jump alive when I change just a few words, and especially the nouns and verbs. And as an editor, I've been telling writers for more than 20 years that to make their writing more dramatic and powerful they should improve their verbs.
So out of this obsession comes Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch
. It is the first book for nonacademics to focus exclusively on the English verb--why it exists, where it works, and how it can transform the way we write. I have tried to apply the same sense of creative mischief that animates my other writing about language, in Wired Style
and Sin and Syntax
as well as on sinandsyntax.com. I want to write about this stuff in such a way that other writers--even if they're not as geeky as I am--will join me in the language sandbox, making a little mischief but, more importantly, finding a way to pack more meaning into every word.