Monday, November 2, 2015

Looking Closely at Words

by Donn Taylor



W.H. Auden describes a poem as a verbal contraption, and the same is true of any written work. The writer has an idea important enough to tell other people, and the only way he can communicate that idea is through a contraption made out of words. And since words are all we writers have to work with, it behooves us to pay attention to everything about them, including small details.
  
           In this blog I will review a few basics about words. Readers have probably heard these before, but it never hurts to review the basics again.
            First, it's no surprise that some words are stronger than others. In general, verbs are stronger than nouns, nouns are stronger than adjectives, and adjectives are stronger than adverbs. That's why writing guides suggest that the first step in strengthening a body of writing is to delete all the adverbs that are not vital to the meaning.



            One way to strengthen a sentence is to put the main idea in the verb rather than in a noun. Here is an example modeled on a lesson from the non-defunct Famous Writers School:


            My ambition is to be a writer. (Main idea in nouns. The verb is is weak.)

            I aspire to be a writer. (Main idea in an action verb.)

            I yearn to be a writer. (Main idea in a strong action verb.)
 
            As indicated here, some verbs are stronger than others. As we have been taught, state-of-being verbs (forms of to be) are always weak, and should be avoided when strength is needed. Be-verbs and other weak parts of speech such as conjunctions, prepositions, and articles should be kept to a minimum: All are necessary, but using many of them makes for weak writing. Action verbs vary greatly in their vividness or dramatic quality, as do nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

           In general, polysyllables are weaker than monosyllables. And the history of England has given writers a wonderful gift. The Norman Conquest of A.D 1066 grafted the Latin-derived French language onto the native Anglo-Saxon English. The result is that today we have a wonderfully varied vocabulary of words from which to choose.

            Words derived from Old English (like yearn in the examples above) are stronger than words like the Latin-derived aspire. The skilful writer can vary these degrees of strength to place the emotional emphases in the most telling places. This is part of what Shakespeare does in Hamlet's dying request to his friend Horatio:

If ever thou didst hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

            The soft, Latinate polysyllables of the second line give way to the hard-hitting monosyllables of the third (almost all of which are derived from Old or Middle English).

It took Shakespeare decades of practice to achieve that level of art, and few if any of us will ever write lines of that perfection. Yet, through consistent practice of the principles stated here, many of us can turn out fairly respectable examples of writing with verbal strengths in the appropriate places.
 

 


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5 comments:

  1. Love this, Donn. I never thought of the strength of verbs based on their etymology, but it makes sense. So many of the terms in the natural sciences stem from Latin--it's just a stiff, exact language.

    Terrific article.

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  2. Donn, I'm printing this one out so I can refer to it again and again! Thanks for another great post.

    Blessings,
    Deb

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  3. Very helpful, informative post. It was great to hear part of this at the East Texas Christian Writers Conference this past weekend.

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  4. You can't go wrong checking with Mr. Shakespeare for writing tips. Nice explanation, Donn. Thanks for a good post.

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