Better Verbs

Let’s start with an exercise I stole from Alexander Chee, who stole it from Annie Dillard, who stole it from Samuel Johnson.

Take a section of what you’re working on now and circle (or underline) every verb you use.

Next, count the verbs on each page, and write the number in the margin. When you get to the end of the piece, average the number.
Then, ask yourself:

  1. How high is your verb count? Could it be higher? (Chances are, yes.)
  2. Did each verb fulfill the demands of the sentence? (Chances are, no.)

Dillard, Chee’s teacher, ordered him to perform this exercise on his own story, he writes in his delightful book How To Write An Autobiographical Novel“I stared comprehendingly at the circles on my page, and the bad choices surrounding them and inside them.”

Sound or look familiar? Circle these:

Passive voice — An ashtray was flung across the room. Excuse me? Where’s the flinger? Where’s the fling-ee?

Too many gerunds — She was looking instead of She looked (or she searched or she stared). As Dillard said, “Too many gerunds together on the page makes for tinnitus: running, sitting, speaking, laughing, inginginginging.,”

Bland verbs — Leaning on is/was, are/were, have/had, when something livelier, more descriptive awaits. He had a fish, instead of he bought a fish, caught a fish, or carried a fish. 

Too much past perfect tense — It wraps your sentence in a thick layer of gauze. I had flown to Montreal instead of I flew to Montreal. 

Unfortunately, it’s possible to combine them all. I’m going to show you one of my own clunkers now. Don’t hold it against me. Another thing Kristin had said was that as we got closer to the anniversary, people would regress.

If you understood that last sentence, maybe you could explain it to me.

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s Michelle Obama from her bestselling memoir Becoming: (HT to my colleague Kesi Augustine!)

The music was never annoying, it was just persistent: It crept up the stairwell that separated our space from [the piano teacher’s]; it drifted through open windows in summertime, accompanying my thoughts as I played with my Barbies or built little kingdoms made out of blocks. 

Did you notice the gerund? The “was?” Probably not!

You don’t need to exterminate gerunds, “to be,” past perfect, or even passive voice. Just use them sparingly, when they’re the only verb that will do.

Whether Michelle Obama circled, counted, and weeded her verbs to create that one fabulous sentence, I cannot say. I can tell you, I counted 69 verbs in my first draft of this letter, 29 of them versions of “to be,” or gerunds. I’ll be better work on it.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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