Thursday, January 26, 2017

Linking Verbs: Parts of Speech in Writing

The dictionary definition of expert is “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” An English teacher, as an example, should be an expert in the grammar of the English language. He or she should know the basics thoroughly, understand the nuances, and be able to apply his or her language knowledge in an appreciable way. Most people would expect that from an English teacher. But what about a writer? Shouldn’t a writer be just as adept at the language as a teacher? After all, a writer is taking his or her creative ideas and using the language to express them in a way that a reader is able to understand, experience, and enjoy. However, many writers aren’t experts about the basics of the language, so I’m writing a blog series about the parts of speech, hoping to give some advice about better writing along the way. I believe an author should have comprehensive and authoritative knowledge about the language. Possibly, this blog will help.

In my first blog in this series, I wrote about action verbs because action is the easiest thing to understand, and verbs are possibly the most important words in a writer’s sentences. Today’s blog post will be about linking verbs. Linking verbs do not show action. They show state of being. Since all sentences have verbs, writing experts should have a clear understanding of the verbs that don’t show action and should be able to recognize them in sentences. Why? Because, plain and simple, action is better. We’ll get to that later. Below is a list of the most common non-action verbs.

The “be” verbs—the topmost list of words—all have the same meaning except for tense or whether they’re used with singular or plural subjects. They don’t do a thing. They just “be.” They are. They tell that something is. Helping verbs—generally, the middle list—don’t stand alone. They are either used in coordination with a linking verb or with an action verb to help it have meaning—She could be an angel. The car might run out of gas. The bottom list could be seen ending with an –s (seem or seems) or they could change tenses (smell or smelled). Depending how this list of words is used, they might show action or state of being. I can look out a window, or I could say the bread looks moldy. I did something when I looked out the window. The bread isn’t doing anything. It’s simply in a state of being moldy. There are other words that aren’t as commonly used that can show state of being as well, but the list above is fairly comprehensive.

So what’s the big deal? The issue is that a writer attempts to capture a reader, and action does that much better than inaction. In other words, active sentences are better than passive ones that just show a state of being.

In the process of writing Jumper, my time-travel, action/adventure novel, I wrote a blog post. It was about repetition and mentioned the fact that I used the word was 974 times before revision. One out of every 74 words was was. The book was supposed to be filled with action, yet I found I had a lot of revision to do just because of that one repetitiously-used word. I had a teen fan write me an email recently, asking me how to avoid passive sentences. There is no easy answer to the question, but I told her to do a word search for –ing words. Just type in ing and see what happens. If the word has was, were, is, am, or are in front of it, see if the two words can be changed to an action verb. Maria was huddling quietly in the corner can become Maria quietly huddled in the corner. Or Julia was singing joyfully can be Julia sang joyfully. This little test works with ed words also. The fort was attacked is a passive sentence, but to do a search for ed words could make you want to attack your computer.

Here’s a shortcut method for recognizing passive sentences. Try putting the words by zombies after your verb. If the sentence makes sense, it’s passive. The fort was attacked (by zombies). That makes sense; it’s a passive sentence. Zombies attacked (by zombies) the fort doesn’t make sense. That sentence is active, and low and behold, the second sentence doesn’t have a linking verb. It’s a shortcut which doesn’t work perfectly, but it might help you identify passive sentences. However, knowing your linking verbs would eliminate your need for zombies. Linking verbs, if you learn to recognize them, are passive, so you can actually revise as you’re writing.

Are you ready for grammar that might hurt your head? In my sample sentences above—the ones with the linking verbs—standing, singing, and attacked are not verbs. They're adjectives. They’re specific kinds of adjectives called participles, which are verbals (verb-like words) that describe nouns. Standing describes Maria. Singing describes Julia. Attacked describes the fort. I happen to know—because I taught English for thirty years—that some of you are thinking you were taught (taught is an adjective) that in the sentence Julia was singing joyfully that the subject is Julia and the verb is was singing. Well, you were taught incorrectly.  

Let me digress for a second. If your sentence was Maria was kind, angry, perplexed, wealthy, and sunburned, how is Maria being described? Adjectives describe nouns, most often telling what kind of a noun. What kind of person is Maria? She’s kind, angry, perplexed, wealthy, and sunburned. All those words describe Maria, just like singing does. What kind of person is she? She is a singing person. It’s describing her. What if I said Singing Maria is adorable? Would you say singing is a verb? Would you say adorable is a verb? I wouldn’t. I’d say they were describing Maria, telling me what kind of person she is. So if I said Adorable Maria is singing, there is no difference. Both words describe Maria regardless of their order. If you still disagree, let me ask you this. Julia was singing joyfully, correct? What if I said Joyfully singing, Julia inspired the audience to cheers. Would you agree that joyfully singing is an introductory phrase describing Julia and that the action verb in the sentence is inspired? Joyfully happy, Julia sang to her audience. Would you agree that happy is describing Julia? Huddling quietly in the corner, Maria wept at her loss. Huddling describes Maria, while wept is the action. Unmercifully attacked, the fort crumbled and burned. Attacked describes the fort while crumbled and burned is what the fort did. Do you know what else I did in my revised sentences? I created good sentence variety. The subject and verb were moved from the beginning of the sentences to the middle. Sentence variety is also part of good writing.

So those ing and ed words after a linking verb are not verbs; they’re participles—adjectives—and they are all parts of passive sentences. Those sentences aren’t showing action. They’re showing state of being—and honestly, the best way to understand is to be able to identify linking verbs because those are the words that are driving your passive sentences. Learn them and be a better writer by avoiding them the best you can. If you write them in your rough drafts, search for them in your editing process and revise as many sentences as you can to give them more variety and make them active. Your writing will be better, and your readers will notice.

***If you are a writer, looking for an editor, please visit this link and connect with me.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Action Verbs: Parts of Speech in Writing

Our language is built on eight parts of speech. Those parts are the building blocks of every sentence every writer writes. They can be manipulated to express beautiful, romantic, inspiring, imaginative things, and they can be manipulated to express unintelligent or uninteresting things no one cares to read. The order of the building blocks creates variety, voice, and meaning (among other things). They determine where punctuation is to be placed. Knowledge of them elicits proper grammar. I taught English for thirty years, I’ve written five novels, and I edit books as a current “career.” I found it difficult to teach writing in the past, and I’m finding it even more difficult in the present to content and line edit without referencing or teaching the parts of speech. I imagine it would be no different than teaching auto mechanics without teaching the car parts and the tools to manipulate them. This entry is the first of a series of blogs by which I intend to help readers learn some things about our language that will help them become better writers. Because I’m ever-learning, maybe it’ll help me be a better writer and editor as well.

Teaching the parts of speech has one difficult obstacle that I’ve never figured out how to completely overcome. It’s extremely difficult to start with one and simply move along. They overlap. They work together. It’s hard to talk about one without ever mentioning others. They aren’t simply building blocks that one can build upon the other. However, experience has taught me that the best, most logical place to begin is with verbs. If one part of speech can be more important than another, then I vote for verbs. There are three kinds of verbs: action, helping, and linking. Today, I’m going to focus on action verbs. They’re easiest, and the writing tips that apply are especially important.

Action verbs show…well, action. Physical action is obvious, but action verbs include mental action—action of the mind (words like consider, wonder, believe, and hypothesize). Verbs tell what is being done. Some action verbs are transitive, leading to something that receives the action (Donald Trump said something stupid) and some are intransitive with nothing receiving the action (Hillary Clinton lied again). “Something” is the direct object of “said.” You could ask the question “Said what?” and the answer would be “something stupid.” “Lied” doesn’t have a direct object. You could ask “Lied what?” and there is no answer because lied is intransitive. This same thing can apply to mental action. I considered jogging. “Considered” is a transitive action verb with “jogging” as the direct object. I deliberated for less than ten seconds (because I don’t jog). “Deliberated” is an intransitive verb because there is no answer to “deliberated what?” That’s pretty much all you need to know about action verbs, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is action spurs imagination. Our minds can visualize action. It can be pleasant looking at a picture, but watching a video is more likely to get our blood pumping. Writers need to use action verbs to create action-packed possibilities in our readers’ minds. All writers have heard the saying “Show; don’t tell.” Well, action verbs show. Instead of saying, “You’re brilliant,” he said sarcastically, you can say, Mike rolled his eyes. “You’re brilliant.” He shook his head as he walked away. The reader saw a scene of action and figured out that the speaker was being sarcastic.

How about this: The tips of Mike’s fingers met above the bridge of his nose. His thumbs hooked under his jaw, hiding his nose and mouth from my view, but I could see his wide eyes and his knee as it bounced frantically. That’s an action-packed description of Mike: met, hooked, could see, bounced. Or I could say this: Mike seemed scared. He was covering his face with his hands and his knee was bouncing uncontrollably. There are no action verbs in the second set of sentences. The verbs are seemed, was, and was. The first set is active while the second set is passive. Active is better.

And some verbs are better than others. “Thought” isn’t as specific as “planned.” “Walked” is far less specific than “hobbled.” Why say “ate greedily” when you can say “devoured”? Why say “read and remembered” when you can say “absorbed”? Something can break or it can chip, crack, shatter, or splinter. Words have specific meanings which paint specific pictures. (Let me interrupt and say that a thesaurus is a wonderful thing). What I’m obviously pointing out is that great action verbs can paint specific pictures, often saving the writer words.

But that leads me to mention something that is just the opposite. I’ve noticed many knowledgeable authors comment about dialogue tags. I’m going to throw in that many people don’t punctuate dialogue correctly (that will mostly be dealt with in another blog), but then I’m going to mention that many authors say the words “said” and "asked" are practically the only dialogue tags a writer needs. No author is going to write an entire novel without using a synonym for said at least occasionally, but what many successful authors are saying is to throw away the thesaurus for dialogue tags. All those wonderful synonyms aren’t needed--some are actually awkward and detract from the writing. So here is where everything I said above is thrown out the window for dialogue tags. Don’t use more specific words or add words to tell how the speaker is speaking. Again, you need to show instead of tell, especially when the telling adds –ly words (adverbs).

“Come here,” Lexi purred seductively should be more like “Come here,” Lexi said. She beckoned with her finger, lust in her eyes.

“Put your hands in the air,” Duke growled menacingly should be more like “Put your hands in the air,” said Duke. He glared over the shot gun, his teeth clenched in anger. Less synonyms and adverbs; more specific description.

And while I’m on dialogue, a dialogue tag is used to express words for said. Smiled, for instance, is not a way of speaking. “You look beautiful,” he smiled isn’t punctuated correctly. The comma rule says to put a comma to set off the dialogue tag, but “smiled” isn’t a way of speaking, so it doesn’t fit the rule. It should be “You look beautiful.” He smiled. Or, better, put “He smiled” first. 

So lesson one on the parts of speech is about action verbs. Make your writing action-packed. Use the active rather than the passive voice. Use more specific verbs. But when it comes to dialogue, simplify your dialogue tags and show rather than tell. 

***If you are a writer, looking for an editor, please visit this link and connect with me.