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Vivid verbs defended with verve

Constance Hale's 'Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch' is a good read on writing, especially on the power of verbs.

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"Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing." How's that for a title that encapsulates a book's message?

Author Constance Hale has followed up her earlier "Sin and Syntax" with another book that strives to demonstrate that writing about language and grammar needn't be dull. It succeeds.

In her introduction, she quotes Joan Didion: "Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power," and then continues in her own voice: "Isn't this how we all feel? We sense hidden mysteries, but feel clueless about how to solve them."

Ms. Hale shouldn't sell herself short. She obviously has lots of clues. She manages to get in, for instance, discussions of the nuances of tenses – present perfect progressive, no less! – and of moods (indicative, imperative, and subjunctive, that is; not merely good and bad).

But her basic message is that verbs – action words – are the engines of good prose. At one point, after describing a sentence as consisting of the elements of subject and predicate, she writes, "We need to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. Think of the predicate as a predicament. The sentence, then, features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of little drama (the predicate)."

A few words about the title: It's more than just a string of (especially) active verbs – although it is certainly that. The four verbs serve as a mnemonic for a process that repeats in each chapter.


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