Tag: language

Two Quotes on Verbs

“Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor. […] Fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.”

William Zinsser, Writing English as a Second Language

“The nouniness of a piece of writing is a sure sign of lack of care for the reader and lack of thought in the writer. For writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking. Nouny writing relieves the writer of the need to do either. In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say that there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x.

How do you breathe life into sentences choked with nouns? Simple: use verbs. […] Verbs enact this universal law: everything moves. […] Life is a noun but it can only be lived as a verb.”

Joe Moran, First You Write a Sentence

Clear Thinking

“Control language and you control thought; control thought and you control action; control action and you control the world.”

Peter Kreeft

William Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well that clear writing reflects clear thinking. Not everybody considers themselves writers (and not everybody needs to) but I notice bad writing is rife in workplaces where there either isn’t time for clear thinking (because the work is fast-paced) or thinking is more or less discouraged because the workplace has its own language with jargon and many abbreviations and the efficiency of the workplace depends on that established language, however unclear it may be.

Sometimes it’s an act of rebellion to simplify language.

Finding the Right Words

Hemingway at his desk.

Each time we sit down to write something new we commence, as T.S. Eliot would put it, “a raid on the inarticulate.” We hunt for the right words to say what we mean but we often discover that we don’t know what we mean or that in the act of writing new meanings begin to present themselves so then the writing becomes a matter of reeling in the emerging meanings before they slip away.

Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been a lasting influence on me since I discovered his book Writing without Teachers. In it he questions the conventional model of writing, that we first make our meaning clear before we start to write, and instead proposes an alternative model to “think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning -before you know your meaning at all- and encourage your words to change and evolve.”

For me the real treasure in this book is when Professor Elbow articulates the writer’s paradox, that it’s often difficult to figure out what we want to say until we say it, and says “The consequence is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing till you get the right meanings in the right words.”

It happens to us all.

When The Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway what made him rewrite the ending to his second novel A Farewell to Arms thirty nine times Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”