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Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing

4.2 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393081169
ISBN-10: 0393081168
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Editorial Reviews


“A worthwhile addition to any word-lover’s book shelf.” — New York Journal of Books

“A romp for the language obsessed, with a broad sampling of usage to help readers who want to become better writers.” — Nancy Almand (Library Journal)

“Bubbling with energy and conviction.” — Kirkus Reviews

From the Author

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (October 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393081168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393081169
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #979,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a writer based in San Francisco. I grew up on the North Shore of Oahu, where I spoke "proper" English at home and Hawaiian creole (or "Pidgin English") at school. I'm sure that this "bilingual upbringing" gave me my obsession with language. I travel to Hawaii often, and to stay connected to that culture I study the hula in California. (My husband says I will dance at the drop of a hat, but actually it's Hawaiian music that makes me want to move.)

My next book is actually on hula.

I left the islands for college, then spent years writing fiction and drama, performing solo pieces in San Francisco coffeehouses, and getting rejection letters. I loved journalism, so I got a master's degree from UC Berkeley and worked as a reporter and editor at several California newspapers. Then I joined Wired magazine. That was a career changer. I began seriously dabbling in the idiosyncrasies of the mother tongue and wrote "Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age" in 1996. Doing a book was so much fun that I wrote "Sin and Syntax" in 1999. The books got me dubbed "Marion the Librarian on a Harley or E.B. White on acid."

"Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch" completes the trilogy. I was still curious about the history of English--and indeed the evolution of language itself--and wanted to explore some of my ideas about how and why the verb is the linchpin of great writing. It's intended to be useful to professional writers and students, but also just fun and weird and interesting.

I also wrote a series on the sentence for "Draft," in the New York Times Opinionator. I continue to offer opinions, tips, techniques, and teaching materials to writers and teachers via my Web site, www.sinandsyntax.com.

I don't write only about language; I've covered Latino culture, Berkeley politics, ethnic-folk music, and Hawaiian sovereignty--in publications as diverse as The Atlantic Monthly, Honolulu, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian. My travel pieces and personal essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous anthologies.

In 2016 I'll be publishing my first children's book, set on the beach in Hawaii.

The secret to the writing I like: an unusual combo of classy and sassy. The secret to the teaching I like: smart lessons and hilarious fun. The secret to the life I seek: giving of yourself to others.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In this spirit of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence, this book is a gold mine for writers looking for provocative examples and practical techniques. The author is herself a brilliant stylist, with a gift for communicating her points in a way that's at once authoritative and encouraging.

The historical sections toward the beginning are very well executed, but they will appeal to fewer readers than the main chapters will.

A few highlights:
The vex-hex-smash-smooch pattern in each chapter makes the book both engaging and easy to follow.

Chapter 7 (Passive Restraint) has the least intimidating (and yet most comprehensive) treatment of when to use the passive voice that I've ever read.

Chapters 8 and 10 and 11 tie such topics as the imperative mood and the use of participles to writers' communciation goals, making the discussion accessible and practical.

Appendix 2 answers many common and grammar questions such as data vs. datum and agreement in neither-nor and either-or constructions. (Unlike some writing "experts," Hale correctly notes that you agree in those constructions with the second noun in the pair.)

Appendix 5 (called "Phrasal verbs", perhaps not her most engaging title) has a very helpful list of commonly confused or misused verb and verb phrases. Some are rarely sources of mistakes (bring down vs. bring up), but she also targets many of the most common offenders (like using "center around" rather than "center on," and using "try and" rather than "try to").

One recommendation for the next edition: a single list of vivid verbs like vex, hex, smash, and smooch.

Ross Guberman
Author, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates
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Format: Hardcover
For all you writers out there, Constance Hale has done it again. This time the subject is verbs. Her new book, "Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch," should be absorbed by anyone who wants to create memorable prose.

I've been preaching the power of verbs for years. But Connie injects life and humor into the subject by citing examples from the Caesar to contemporary politicians.

Read the book. Integrate its wisdom into your writing. You won't regret it. Neither will your readers.
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Format: Kindle Edition
If a mousy English teacher yanked the hairpins out of her tight bun, slammed down a couple of boiler makers, and shimmied around the dance floor at a biker bar, she could blame it on the copy of "Hex, Vex, Smash, and smooch" tucked in her book bag.
Constance Hale stimulates writers to accentuate and resuscitate their sentences with better verbs— the "little despots" that dictate action. But it's not just about verbs; it's about better writing. It's about smashing bad habits, and flirting with new ones. It's about the rich history of our mutt of a mother tongue, and appreciation of it's evolution. And because the "antidote to anxiety is mastery" each chapter includes prompts to "try,do,write,play" and thus makes this a worthy reference for any writer who wants to cut loose on their literary dance floor.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've been following Connie Hale since I was lucky enough to take one of her seminars years ago at a conference. Soon as I got home, I gobbled up her book, Sin & Syntax, which has become my go-to source whenever I need a little inspiration to punch up my writing. Now Hale strikes again with another entertaining and edifying guide. This is not one of those language primers you dip into to look up that rule you can't remember (though there's plenty of good stuff on rules -- like when to consider using double negatives). It's a love story about language that reads beautifully start to finish.

Buy this book. Read it. Then buy some more to give to others who'd appreciate learning how to add more oomph to their writing.
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Format: Hardcover
Little wonder that Constance Hale brings a magical vigor and light to her subjects. She was born and raised in Hawaii, and in "Vex" she (metaphorically) probes craters, scales cliffs, hangs10, and hulas the night away to animate the topic of verbs, impart their powers, and infuse us with passion for them. A passion for verbs? Emphatically yes. Open this book and feel the love---in Hale's cheerful voice, the delightful pop-up features, and especially the compassionate, ever-authoritative guidance toward savoring the language and using it in fresh, forceful, exciting ways. Think you'll be slogging your way through a lot of dull grammar? Uh-uh. Bring your surfboard.
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Format: Hardcover
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

More than just a simple smooch for Hale! She defined her "Smooch"--a section she uses to end each chapter--as an opportunity for "showcasing writing that is so good you'll want to kiss its creator" (p. 18). Her book features "juicy words, sentences that rock, and subjects that startle" (p. 18).

Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye! Calling all readers, writers, and connoisseurs of the English language--don't overlook this book. It is one of the richest, most edifying, thought provoking, thoroughly engrossing, sumptuously satisfying, and completely entertaining books I have read.

With 17 pages of splendid notes, a fabulous "Selected Bibliography" (10 pages), and 36 pages of appendices, Hale offers readers all they need (and more!) of resources. In books of this nature, one thrill comes from the tremendous depth of understanding Hale reveals and another from the breadth of knowledge displayed. I am immediately reminded of Roy Peter Clark's, The Glamour of grammar: A guide to the magic and mystery of practical English (another 5-star book that I previously reviewed for Amazon). In my mind, both books are "must reads"--and for many of the same reasons.

Hale's language is delightful and her instructions specific and to the point. Here is but one morsel as an example: "Are we splitting hairs? No. Graceful style requires graceful words. Precision requires nuance. Take utilize, a distinct word having a distinct sense: `to turn to practical use or account.' It suggests a deliberate decision or an effort to employ something or someone for a practical purpose. If what you mean to say is 'use,' utilize is a pretentious substitute" (p. 97). Valuable for her directness; invaluable for her insight.
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