Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing
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From the Author
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.
From the Inside Flap
A veteran journalist and teacher, Hale divides each chapter into four easy-to-grasp sections. "Vex" grapples with a confusing part of syntax (e.g., when do you use the past tense, and when is past perfect better?). "Hex" shatters myths about verbs (you can split an infinitive). "Smash" warns you of common bad habits (when the passive voice is tantamount to a cop-out). Finally, "Smooch" showcases writing "so good you'll want to kiss its creator."
For illustration, Hale draws from great works of literature, hailing the coinages of Shakespeare, the spareness of Ernest Hemingway, the precision of Susan Orlean, and the subversive Spanglish of Junot Díaz. She intersperses her commentary with sidebars and "vox pops," quoting linguists, historians, pop-culture heroes, and working writers. Brimming with unashamed enthusiasm for the highbrow and the low-, Hale culls, too, from snappy "tweets," advertising slogans, and Facebook status updates.
After reading Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, writers of every level of expertise will be able to use verbs more artfully. This is a much-needed addition to any bookshelf, a fresh guide to perking up your prose, spinning supple sentences, and surprising readers.
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In case the reader needs it, Hale explicitly gives permission in the introduction to jump around and read the book in chunks. She begins with a history of English verbs, moves through a study of tenses, phrases and sentence structure and concludes with a hefty appendix section that clarifies pesky and confusing verbs (lay, lain, lain vs. lie, lay, lain and wreak/reek/wreck). In the process, she packs in plenty of examples from an array of strong writers and speakers--Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barett Browning to Cormac McCarthy and George W. Bush. "Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch" is a good read and a terrific resource for people who are serious about writing well.