Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bloggus Interruptus

Things have been insanely busy chez nous, which you may have already guessed because of the blog silence. The world blew up on Wednesday, and I've just now caught enough of the falling pieces to start cobbling it back together. Happens sometimes. I'm sure everyone knows what it means to be busy.

I want to respond to some of the comments to the post on dull verbs, but before we do that, I thought I'd post the next Redlines column. This one tackles the same basic idea from a different angle. After we've looked this one over, we'll come back to some ideas and questions about dull verbs.


Last month, we continued examining subject-verb-object dynamics. This month, we’re going to look at other types of tangled constructions, in particular, sentences that don’t put the strongest verb into the best sentence slot. In other words, we’re going to learn a trick to help you organize sentences for power and impact.

Let’s start with a core idea. As we have already seen, simple sentences contain a main subject, verb, and sometimes an object. But not all sentences are simple -- some are compound, complex, or all dressed up with phrases and clauses. Unfortunately, the more pieces you hang onto the basic subject-verb-object spine, the more likely it is that your sentence will lose focus.

One form of lost focus occurs when you have lots of action words -- verbs of any tense or variation -- competing for attention. Generally, verbs do the heavy lifting in a sentence because they literally tell the reader what is happening, where the action is. But not all verbs are active.

Here’s an example:
He was the kind of man who liked to build model airplanes.

In this case, everything that comes before “who” (the relative pronoun) is the main part of the sentence. Everything that comes after “who” is a subordinate clause. The subject-verb-object slots in the main sentence generally will draw a reader’s attention more than the subordinate idea. This is why we say that ideas of greater importance usually go in the main part of the sentence, and ideas of lesser importance (subordinate ideas, get it?) usually follow the relative pronoun.

The sentence contains three action words: was, liked and build. Of these three, one is very weak (was), one is weak (liked), and one is strong (build).

What’s the difference between a weak and a strong verb? Weak verbs describe states of being, emotional states, preferences, and similar intangibles. Conjugations of the verb “to be” are so weak as to be nearly transparent. The reader’s mind interprets “to be” verbs similar to the equal signs in math equations. “He = the kind of man.” It barely registers, which makes it weak.

Strong verbs, by contrast, are ones that describe an activity or a dynamic state. Strong verbs can be simple enough to include in first grade primers (run, walk) or precise enough to describe distinct shades of activity (waddle, toddle).

In our sample sentence, the weakest verb is the main verb of the main clause. This is a powerful slot in the sentence, and is being filled with a nearly invisible word. So, to maximize impact, remove the weak verb from the strong slot.

He was the kind of man who liked to build model airplanes.
He liked to build model airplanes.

Notice that “who” is nowhere to be found in the second sentence. So the edit completely removes the weak main clause, and lets the formerly subordinate idea claim a more important role. If we wanted, we could take it a step further, by letting the dynamic “build” function as the main verb instead of as an infinitive. Remember, dynamic verbs (build) are stronger than verbs of emotion (liked).

In that case,
He liked to build model airplanes.
He built model airplanes.

There are shades of meaning between these two sentences that might not warrant the change. For example, perhaps the second sentence would be more appropriate if the man’s job was building model airplanes, and the first sentence would apply more to a hobby. So I present this second-level edit of our original sentence mainly as a way of completing the thought, with the caveat that authorial judgment must come into play.

I want to return now to the word “who.” It’s a danger word, a red flag. Along with its cousins (whom, which, that, whose), “who” signals the possibility of a twisted sentence. Writers are generally aware that “that” is a dangerous word. But how do you untangle sentences loaded with danger words? The process is similar to the one we’ve already described -- identify the verbs, measure their relative strength and weakness, and sort them out accordingly.

Let’s practice on a couple examples.

Past relationship failures were the issue that kept her from trusting Lucas.

You see the weak verb, “were,” in a position of power. The other verb is “kept” and it follows one of our red flag words, “that.” If we move “kept” into the power slot, we get:

Past relationship failures kept her from trusting Lucas.

Let’s try one more:

She’d been in a weird limbo for months, a limbo that made her feel as though her life was going nowhere.

Once again, we have a weak verb as the main verb in the main clause -- been. We have a red flag word -- that. But this time, the writer needed to repeat the object (limbo) in order to append the descriptive clause. Why? Most likely, the original sentence contained a dangling modifier. (Think, “She’d been in a weird limbo for months that made her feel as though her life was going nowhere” -- obviously, the months didn’t make her feel anything, but the limbo did.)

A better fix would be to ditch the weak main verb and avoid dangling by putting the temporal reference right up front and out of the way.

For months, a weird limbo made her feel as though her life was going nowhere.

The sharp-eyed among you will note that "as though" also introduces a clause. It's an adverb clause, not a relative pronoun clause, and we'll leave it be for now.

As with any editorial technique, this is not a one-size-fits-all application. Some sentences will function beautifully with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, that, whose) and would actually suffer otherwise. I leave you with one of my favorite examples of a good one, the first sentence from “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.


This is the seventh in the Redlines series.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.



Ian said...

Welcome back! I can only hope you've found a gold mine of great work and are busy tapping that vein!

One of the more sneaky ways which I find myself trying to add passive voice is through constructions where I hide the weak verb altogether and it ends up just being implied. For example:

Ian read over the latest column, composing a suitable comment in his mind.

I use that construction a LOT. And I see it a lot in things other people send me too. Sure, it FEELS okay - after all, there aren't any annoying state-of-being verbs sticking up their ugly heads, but it's only because they're hiding inside that "ING." The implication is that Ian WAS composing a suitable comment. I make a conscious effort to remove those from my own work as much as I can. I'd probably change that sentence like this:

Ian read over the latest column, and composed a suitable comment in his mind.

I don't see any difference in meaning between these two sentences, except that one is dancing with passive voice and the other kicked it to the curb.

I'm less guilty of overusing "who," but I definitely have to watch out for "that."

Thanks for sharing these columns with us!


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're back, too. I was having withdrawal symptoms.

Thanks for these examples and your explanation of weak verbs. I find myself now at least attempting solutions to the weak constructions before reading the alternative. Sometimes I even get them right!

Edittorrent said...

Ian, that's a present participial phrase, and someday I'll treat you to a bona fide rant about them. They have their uses, but they're so frequently misused and overused that I've learned to view them all with suspicion.

Jan, practice makes perfect. :) The more you play with your sentences, the more adept you'll become.


Dave Shaw said...

I'm short of sleep and suffering from allergies today, so I read 'play with your sentences' and had an image of a playground pop into my mind. In it, my sentences took the form of bullies beating me up, and Theresa and Alicia appeared as martial arts senseis teaching me how to straighten them out so they stop doing that. Now I know that those bullies are hiding weak verbs, so I can put them in their places.

Fortunately, I didn't picture our esteemed editors with the bushy beard that my Aikido sensei wears. ;-)

I just had to share that. LOL

Seriously, thank you again, ladies.

Edittorrent said...

OMG, that's AWESOME! I've always wanted to be more like Bruce Lee and less like Hong Kong Phooey!