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.

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