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...."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Vivid verbs defended with verve
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today