Vivid verbs defended with verve

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

"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.

The "vex" section gets to what's vexing or puzzling about the subject matter of each chapter; e.g., what are the few things you really need to know about what makes a sentence, in the chapter on sentences. The "hex" section, which she might have called "nix" instead, is all about blowing the whistle on rules that shouldn't be: "Why 'sentence fragments are wrong' is flat wrong," for instance.

The "smash" section is meant to help the reader "smash" bad habits. The "smash" section of the sentences chapter, for instance, urges the reader to overcome the habit, indulged by so many writers, of starting a sentence with a "there is" or "it is" construction, or a qualifying "I think that...."

The "smooch" section showcases bits of writing so full of verve and style that you'll want to kiss the writer.

She offers samples of sentence diagramming – the Reed-Kellogg system, which you may recognize by sight even if you don't know it by name. She also illustrates the "parse trees" that many linguists prefer; with their drooping branches they remind me of the mobiles hung over cribs.

She includes several appendices, one of them a very concise history of the evolution of language, another a list of dictionary recommendations, and other lists of phrasal verbs, irregular verbs, usage "migraines" (wangle/wrangle; wreak/reek/wreck), and other helpful tips. And she's also a good networker in the world of words, with lots of references to good current writers on language. I put this book down feeling I've been to a great party where I've "met" a lot of interesting people.

There are also little exercises scattered throughout. Some can be done from an armchair. Others will take some fieldwork: "Go sit in a ragtag place and make like an anthropologist.... Listen to people of the street. Go with their rhythms. Hear their verbs...."

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