Words that travel light

The Boston Marathon is only about four weeks off, and suddenly runners are everywhere all over this city.

They sprang forth March 1, like crocuses but a lot more mobile. As they sprint or jog almost effortlessly, it appears, through the streets and along the Charles River, I realize that I wish more of the prose coming my way moved as gracefully.

This new series, which will appear here on Fridays, is titled "Words in Play" because it's meant to be a celebration of active, exuberant language. But watching how usage seems to be changing over time, I see a lot of clunky baggage piling up, as if on an overloaded cart at the airport. Nobody pushing one of these moves very quickly or smoothly.

Compound modifiers strung together with hyphens are a particular bugbear. "Police called to downtown East Podunk confronted anti-affirmative-action demonstrators as well as pro-children's-rights advocates, but did not interfere with the anti-mad-cow-ban cattle-and-bison-ranching activists blocking the pedestrian mall."

And look what's happening to verbs - the "muscles" of language. They're being crowded out by more sedate linking-verb constructions. (Linking verbs used to be known as "copulative verbs" before the snicker factor got to be too much.) "He lost his job" often loses out to "He became unemployed."

Instead of "Ace Insurance Agency serves the maritime industry," we often get, "Ace is a provider of insurance services to the maritime industry." Or we read that something has a "spillover effect" on something else; why not just say, "It spills over" onto whatever? Is an unadorned intransitive verb just too intense?

One of my favorites is "She became a single parent." This can mean anything from, "She adopted a baby from China," to "She murdered her husband."

What's going on here? I think people are using more nouns and fewer verbs because they're thinking that way. This pattern makes for language that's more static, less dynamic - not a good thing. Why categorize along bureaucratic lines? We used to say, "He's got the fidgets"; now we say, "He has attention-deficit disorder."

Here's another front in the War on Verbs. Certain nouns have traditionally required certain verbs as partners: One "performs" a task or a service, for instance, "conducts" an audit, and so on. Mastering these idioms used to be like knowing which fork to start with at a formal dinner, or when to use the subjunctive in French. These days, the multipurpose "do" is replacing many of these standard usages. Not "I have to fly to the Coast to conduct my seminar on 'How to change your life and earn a million bucks this year,' " but "I have to do a seminar."

'Do" may prove to be the cockroach of English verbs, surviving when more specialized verbs have all morphed into nouns or been forgotten or both. But I don't want to see us wordsmiths cramping our own styles this way.

The author's Web log, including links, is at: blogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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