Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch

Posted by Neal on December 20, 2012

When I was in eighth grade, my friend Philip Thrash introduced me to the standup comedy of Steve Martin by lending me his cassette tape of A Wild and Crazy Guy. At one point, Martin was going through a list of books he’d written, with titles such as I’ll Take the Alphabet and Renegade Nuns on Wheels. When he came to The Apple Pie Hubbub, he added, “That was a significant novel for me, because that’s when I first started using verbs.” A pause, then: “My novels really brightened up after that.”

That line kept coming back to me as I read Constance Hale’s book-length appreciation of verbs, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. When I first heard about it, I couldn’t quite get a clear picture of what it was about. The subtitle is Let Verbs Power Your Writing. That made it sound like a style or usage guide. On the other hand, some of what I read about it online suggested an enthusiastic wallow in linguistics like Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules, or an exploration of the syntax of awesome sentences by the most skillful writers, like Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Reading the press release that came with my review copy of the book, I learned that VHSS is intended to be all of these things.

The title is taken from the four sections contained in each chapter. The Vex sections provide the linguistic content to sketch out the basic information about the chapter’s topic. The remaining three sections are more about advice. The Hex sections bust myths and bogus rules about language and grammar–in other words, the rules that should not be heeded (at least not all the time). The Smash sections give examples of what not to do–in other words, the rules or guidelines that should be heeded. The Smooch sections finish with good examples, ways to have fun with verbplay, or both.

The strongest parts of the book are the Smooch sections, which fulfill Hale’s intention of showing good writing and highlighting how it makes use of the properties of verbs she has discussed in the chapter.

The Smash and Hex sections have good moments and bad. Sometimes I didn’t know how Hale decided which rules she would strike down in the Hex section, and which ones she would elevate in the Smash section. Sometimes I disagreed with her judgment. For example, within the class of linking verbs, Hale highlights what she calls “wimp verbs”, which are “disappointments in the name of a verb, because they allow a writer to hedge … rather than commit to an idea.” Two problems here. First of all, most of her wimp verbs don’t hedge, but straightforwardly express a meaning: become, keep, prove, remain, and stay. Second, sometimes a writer needs to hedge. Elsewhere, Hale writes that sentences without hedges “can seem, well, too bold. Get used to it.” She has seen too many cowardly hedges, I guess, so now she hates them all.

Other times, I agreed with Hale’s overall point, but disagreed with her example. This happened in Chapter 3, where Hale discourages needlessly Latinate or Greekate verbs when simpler alternatives exist. She quotes one guy criticizing a bureaucratic body when he said:

I essentially have to ask the approval of management to see certain documents. They go cogitate and then tell me whether I can see them.

Why not use think instead of cogitate? Hale asks. I’d say the speaker is showing an appreciation for the sound and connotations about verbs equal to Hale’s own: Pompous, out-of-touch power holders don’t just “think” about a matter; oh, no, they “cogitate” upon it.

In addition, not every chapter had a good-fitting topic for the Smash and Hex sections. For example, the Smash section in the chapter on verb tense is a good place to tell writers to choose their tenses carefully, and not go switching them with no reason. This Hale does, but in the chapter on verbs borrowed from other languages, how did she decide to criticize phrasal verbs with redundant prepositions (such as circle around)? Turning to the Hex sections, the chapter on phrasal verbs is a natural place to debunk the rule about stranded prepositions, and Hale does so. But in the chapter entirely devoted to the development of prescriptive grammar traditions in English, which rule is the lucky one to be Hexed? Multiple negation, as it turns out.

Like the Smash and Hex sections, the Vex sections have highs and lows. It is clear that Hale loves linguistics, as she cites linguists such as John McWhorter and David Crystal, tells about growing up speaking Hawaiian Pidgin, and discusses topics (such as crash blossoms) that show she’s a fan of language columns and blogs. At the high points, Hale clearly explains linguistic concepts to an audience of nonlinguist language lovers. My delight at those sections made the comedown even harder in the places where Hale’s explanations reveal her misunderstandings of linguistic concepts, and present misinformation that may cause readers confusion later. Furthermore, the Vex sections seem, more than the others, to strain at a playful tone in order to make the content less threatening. Here’s a selection from pages 107-108, where Hale introduces a bread metaphor to talk about different kinds of verbs, with the particularly grating parts underlined:

[L]et’s imagine that the universe of verbs is represented by a giant batch of bread dough. One half of the batch has been made with crunchy, hearty whole grains (wheat berries, oats, rye millet), the other half with refined white flour. … These [kinds of flour] give us our two main categories of … Verbs: Dynamic and Static. … The thing about white flour is that it’s hopelessly bland. Baguettes and ciabatta need other accoutrements–butter, raspberry jam, tapenade, caponata–to make an exciting meal. And guess what? Static Verbs need some delicious nouns and adjectives to make us salivate over the sentences they hold together.

I would rather read this kind of material in books like McWhorter’s What Language Is, or Crystal’s The Fight for English, where it is presented more thoroughly and accurately. I don’t object to extended metaphors; I loved McWhorter’s extended metaphor of coral seen dead and out of the water versus coral seen alive undersea to distinguish between most people’s understanding of language and how language actually is. I’ll list some of VHSS‘s linguistics-related high and low points at the end of the review. For now, here’s an overview of the chapters, with some of my comments mixed in.

  • Chapter 1: Some possible origins of language, and what language might have been like before syntax developed, with opinions from Derek Bickerton and Ray Jackendoff.
    • Vex: A side trip to take a look at nouns, including memorable noun-heavy passages from the Bible and a Hawaiian creation story.
    • Hex: The myth that writing is just about word choice; encouragement to consider words’ phonology and morphology for more adroit manipulation of mood and shades of meaning.
    • Smash: “Bad noun habits,” including compound nouns that “pile abstractions on top of abstractions and leave us clueless as to the people, places, things, or ideas they are actually describing,” circumlocutions, and confusing syntax from news, both written and spoken.
    • Smooch: Fun with writing with few or no verbs, as in some tweets and texts.
  • Chapter 2 introduces the basic notion of subjects and predicates.
    • Vex: Combining subjects with predicates, including the issue of agreement, and keeping careful track of how many predicates go with any given subject.
    • Hex: The myth that sentence fragments are always bad grammar.
    • Smash: “False starts” such as beginning a sentence with “I think” or existential There; tortured syntax that comes from attempting to avoid saying “I”.
    • Smooch: Describing a character by making him or her the subject of many predicates in a row (as opposed to switching subjects), and choosing “lively” predicates.
  • Chapter 3 tells about verbs borrowed from other languages.
    • Vex: A typical condensed history of English, including a summary of the relevant parts of McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and the obligatory excerpts from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales.
    • Hex: The advice to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin when possible.
    • Smash: Redundancy in collocations such as merge together, and in cliched coordinations such as cease and desist. Use of
    • Smooch: An exercise of describing many people all performing the same action in their own particular way, as a prompt to explore the nuances that different verbs can convey; short piece by Garrison Keillor as a model.

    BTW, you can read or hear excerpts from this chapter in the current episode of Grammar Girl.

  • Chapter 4: The rise of prescriptive grammarians.
    • Vex: Two more usual checkpoints in histories of the English language (Shakespeare and the King James Bible); “the rise of the grammar cops” (including Jonathan Swift and Robert Lowth); how it was decided English had eight parts of speech. A sidebar defines various morphological processes for creating new words (see my linguistic comments below).
    • Hex: The history of multiple negation and its fall from grace.
    • Smash: Bad verb-formation habits, including conversion (aka “verbing nouns”), overuse of -ize, and some backformations. Hale doesn’t universally condemn these practices, but recommends more specific verbs when they exist.
    • Smooch: An exercise of describing one person doing many things, as a prompt to use existing verbs in an unexpected way; models are an observer’s descriptions of Louis XIV’s routine, and part of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
  • Chapter 5: A broad classification of verbs.
    • Vex: Static verbs (i.e. linking and auxiliary verbs) and dynamic verbs (all the others).
    • Hex: The myth that Standard English is the only appropriate dialect to use, in all situations. But why is that topic in this chapter, instead of the Hex part of Chapter 4?
    • Smash: Periphrasis with be (e.g. is desirous instead of wants); overreliance on static verbs; wordiness in general.
    • Smooch: Passages rich in dynamic verbs from several authors, including one from Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.
  • Chapter 6: Verb tense.
    • Vex: A glimpse of the plethora of historical Indo-European tenses, and Old and Middle English verb suffixes. Overview of simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive tenses; auxiliary verbs (with the term helping verbs reserved for those that show tense (i.e, do, have, be), including a sampling of how they can interact, but no overall set of rules or summary; a passage from John Hersey’s Hiroshima to illustrate interaction of simple past and past perfect tenses.
    • Hex: Nonstandard tense formations, with a concise summary of some in Black English.
    • Smash: Clintonian use of verb tenses for evasion; Palinian performance errors in tense formation; guessing at irregular past tenses instead of looking them up in a dictionary.
    • Smooch: The historical, “narrative” present tense; dialectal or nonce tense formations; deliberate chaotic use of tenses to show a narrator’s mental instability. Examples include John Steinbeck and a Caribbean novelist named Chamoiseau.
  • Chapter 7: Verb voice.
    • Vex: History of the passive voice, and the widespread cluelessness about what it actually refers to in grammar; comparison of active and passive voice across 12 tenses (with an unexplained switch in example verb halfway through); good reasons to use passive voice; bad reasons to use passive voice.
    • Hex: The oversimplified advice to avoid passive voice. Examples of effective use of passive voice by several authors (but with one verb phrase incorrectly labeled as passive). Headlines ruined by avoidance of passive.
    • Smash: Passive voice used to avoid placing or accepting blame, with a Zimmer-like history of the phrase Mistakes were made; similarly for corporate responsibility-avoiding speech (but with another mislabeled passive voice!).
    • Smooch: Effective use of active voice, even when you might expect to have to use a lot of passives, in a passage from a short story by Thomas Curwen; powerful interaction of active and passive voice in the Gettysburg Address.
  • Chapter 8: Verb mood.
    • Vex: Indicative, imperative, and subjunctive mood; modal auxiliaries and conditional sentences; a classification of conditionals that gets the basic facts right; imperatives in a poem by Donne; modal auxiliaries in lines from songs and poems.
    • Hex: Premature reports of the death of the subjunctive, with a list of the most common places where you’ll find them (though for some reason, the only verb she uses in wish clauses is were; never had or could or knew…).
    • Smash: Conditionals with would have; use of may have where might have is appropriate; use of wish … was instead of wish … were.
    • Smooch: Samples of texts rife with indicative verbs or imperatives; authors include Henry James and Tom Wolfe.
  • Chapter 9: Verb valence.
    • Vex: Intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs. Verbs with object complements such as elect; verbs of causation such as make, let; verbs with patient subjects such as burst (which she calls ergatives, which is less Hale’s fault than the fault of syntacticians who misuse the term than; a less confusing though still jargony term is unaccusative); a toy phrase-structure grammar summing up these kinds of verbs, with examples of each using political slogans from American history.
    • Hex: The lack of respect for sentence diagramming; two sample Reed-Kellogg diagrams and one tree diagram.
    • Smash: Confusion of lay and lie, who and whom, I and me; sentences that depart from a verb+complements structure to get weighted down with many phrases that don’t fit neatly in.
    • Smooch: Sentences that stick to a verb+complements structure for maximum power in minimum length, including memorable telegraph messages, and a passage from Hemingway. (Unfortunately, one telegraph story presented as truth is, in fact, a long-debunked story about Cary Grant.)
  • Chapter 10: Nonfinite verbs.
    • Vex: Participles, gerunds, and infinitives; confusion between past tense and past participle; infinitives as subjects and complements of verbs (though she calls them direct objects).
    • Hex: Splitting infinitives.
    • Smash: Dangling participles; possessive subjects of gerunds.
    • Smooch: Good use of gerunds and participles from sources including Toni Morrison, Susan Orlean, and some Viagra commercials.
  • Chapter 11: Phrasal verbs.
    • Vex: Phrasal verbs and the distinction between prepositions and particles; the term prepositional verb for phrasal verbs that use prepositions instead of particles.
    • Hex: Ending sentences with prepositions; Ben Zimmer’s debunking of the “up with which I wil not put” story. However, Hale ignores the distinction between prepositions and particles that she so nicely made in the Vex section.
    • Smash: Separating a verb and its particle with a long-ass noun phrase. (Here, an example that should have been in the Smooch section has crept in: Hale praises Ronald Reagan’s phrasing of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”) Choosing the wrong preposition for a phrasal verb; unnecessary prepositions when the verb itself is sufficient; unnecessary phrasal verbs when a single-verb option exists.
    • Smooch: Phrasal verbs with up, exemplified in Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”.
  • Chapter 12: A grab-bag of verbs that cause confusion for one reason or another.
    • Vex: A grab-bag of verbs that cause confusion for one reason or another.
    • Hex: The belief that there is only one right way to express some thought.
    • Smash: Misunderestimate, refudiate, aggravate.
    • Smooch: Careen, carom, career; deliberately nonstandard usage in dialogue, with examples from Cormac McCarthy and the Beatles.
  • Epilogue: Thoughts on style that go beyond the grammar, including metaphor and various rhetorical devices, with more good examples from spoken and written English.

VHSS has several appendices, which are billed in the press release as useful references. Some of them are; others would have been if they had presented a more thorough and organized picture of their topic.

  • Appendix 1 discusses ideas about the origin of language that didn’t make it into Chapter 1, including the hoary “ding-dong,” “bow-wow,” and “yo-he-ho” hypotheses that I remember reading about 25 years ago.
  • Appendix 2 attempts to present all the troublesome cases for subject-verb agreement in one place: collective nouns, every, fractions, singulars that end in -s, compound subjects, and more. This is a great idea–I wish Hale had pushed it a bit further. She covers compound subjects linked by and, but what about pronouns linked by or, as in you or I? And what about sentence like What you need is/are better apps?
  • Appendix 3 briefly reviews several popular dictionaries. This is a good summary.
  • Appendix 4 lists all the most common irregular verbs. Hale begins with a glimpse of the linguistic history of irregulars. However, she mentions only strong and weak verbs, saying nothing about weak verbs whose past tense resulted from contraction (such as beat), or suppletion (come/went, is/was)–although these verbs still appear in the list. Worse, in the introductory paragraph she even highlights–as an example of a “once strong verb”–the most famous example of an originally weak verb that has developed a strong/irregular past tense: sneak. An admirable attempt to put some linguistic information into a grammar reference has ended up a source of linguistic misinformation.
  • Appendix 5 covers phrasal verbs in a list whose members were chosen more for their entertainment value than for representativeness of phrasal verbs. Idiomatic meanings aren’t explained; they’re just used as if the reader knows them. Hale uses run over as a phrasal verb in the phrase running him over, but never mentions that for many speakers, over acts as a preposition instead of a particle, as in running over him. At times she even loses sight of what actually constitutes a phrasal verb, as when she discusses try to and try and, neither of which contains a particle.
  • Appendix 6 is a usage guide on misused verbs. Some of the mnemonics don’t make sense. For example, to remember the difference between wax and wane, Hale advises the reader to remember that “wane precedes wax alphabetically, just as small comes before big.” Huh? Maybe, if you’re thinking about living things, but I tend to think about the moon when I think of waxing and waning, and in that case, small comes both before and after big, month after month.

In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Constance Hale has ambitiously tried to create something that Geoff Pullum has often called for: a linguistically informed prescriptive grammar or style guide. Though she succeeds in the Smooch component, the mix of good information with misinformation and misunderstandings in the Vex, Hex, and Smash components causes it to fall short.


Where Hale gets it right when it comes to linguistics

  • Noting that verbs are an open class. (Introduction)
  • Moving away from the notional definition of nouns (“person, place or thing”) and giving a more syntactically oriented view. (Introduction)
  • Introducing the idea of selectional restrictions by noting, “You can’t just take any noun and hitch it to a verb.” (2)
  • Briefly but accurately (as far as I can tell) describing nonstandard verb tenses in Black English. (6)
  • Defining the passive voice accurately (or at least accurately enough). (7)
  • Accurately presenting intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive verbs, and not claiming that any verb phrase with an indirect object can be rephrased with a to prepositional phrase. (9)
  • Distinguishing between prepositions and particles when discussing phrasal verbs. (11)

Where Hale misses the mark

  • Claiming that in some languages, verbs are less important than in English, and illustrating with an Arabic sentence with a zero copula. Lots of languages do this! Show me a different missing verb to convince me. (Introduction)
  • Writing that swear is the oldest verb in English, since it’s attested as early as 688 CE. Does she mean “oldest verb attested from a time when English is still considered English”? What about all the (other) verbs that English inherited from Proto-Germanic, or Proto-Indo-European?
  • Calling sad a morpheme (true) which can combine with other morphemes to form words such as saddle. (1)
  • Alluding to the newscasting style that Geoff Nunberg calls “Inglish”. (1) Hale says it doesn’t have verbs, but it does! They’re all participles!
  • Claiming that a passage in George Orwell’s Newspeak omits verbs. (1) In fact, the only one it omits is is, and the others are simply in abbreviated form.
  • Giving an example of one subject with two predicates that’s really two clauses with repeated subject we. (2)
  • Getting the constituency wrong in a cursory look at tree diagramming: really pretty isn’t parsed as a constituent in most really pretty girls. (2)
  • Unwittingly including a multi-level coordination in a passage intended to show how someone “carefully coordinates his subjects and predicates”. (2) (The coordination is have solidified her muscles, seasoned her pugnacity, and … the suddenly limp police horde perceives the murderous intent….)
  • Claiming that English’s “full palette of phonemes gives us the change to let vowels and consonants echo the sound of real things”. (3) Full palette of phonemes? We don’t have any uvular consonants, or front round vowels, or clicks. People who speak click languages, for example, would have a much easier time than we would of making the verb for “knock” sound like actual knocking.
  • Disregarding her own advice by needlessly inventing new words for morphological processes. In her sidebar in Chapter 4, compounding becomes smishsmashing, and conversion becomes slipsliding. These words are less transparent than what they replace. For example, I would have guessed that smishsmashing referred to blending (i.e. portmanteau words).
  • Noting that verbs, in particular, forms of be, are optional in some Hawaiian sentence, but not saying the same about Black English, which she discussed on the previous page, or other languages with copula deletion. (5)
  • Implying that helping verbs are not just auxiliary verbs, but any verb that takes a verbal complement, such as make, let, or cause. (5)
  • An editing error: printing thorns as p in passages from Old English. (7)
  • Implying that passives can be constructed with have (which is true), but giving had been sowed as an example. (7) It’s passive, but because of the been, not the had.
  • Labeling the verb phrase was to remember as passive voice. (7)
  • Implying that there are three passive clauses to be found in a quotation from the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, when there are only two. (7)
  • Claiming that the saws that cut the rectangular wood tiles for Milton Bradley’s Scrabble game are now still is in the passive voice. (7) These last two examples were such disappointments after such an otherwise clear-eyed assessment of passive voice!
  • Calling auxiliary verbs with elliptical complements intransitives, as in You wouldn’t or I do. (9)
  • Writing as if the syntactic subtypes of the verbs presented in Chapter 9 are all of the subtypes, without mentioning verbs that take clausal or infinitival complements.
  • Insisting that subjects of gerunds must be possessive (10), without considering differences in meaning, or what to do with expletive subjects (the problem of its being too foggy to drive?)>
  • Giving credence to the Global Language Monitor. (Chapter 1 notes)

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