When it comes to verbs, I admit, my stomach churns. I understand what verbs are; they are action words. They tell and help and show, but how do they work? Poet Donald Hall in his book, Writing Well, says that, when it comes to verbs, “Less is more, in prose as in architecture” (42). Is this true? His thesis claims that good writing is a direct result of reasoned, compact verbs. I wish to test this thesis on four children’s books: Where the Wild Things Are, The House in the Night, The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Verbs Are The Engine That Drives The Story
Donald Hall is a poet. Poet’s by nature fret over every word. Writers are encouraged to do the same. But, is the benefit solely for those who write short or compact stories? Is less, indeed, always more? Take for example Maurice Sendak, the king of compact writing, and his book Where the Wild Things Are. His opening line reads, “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything” (1 – 4). This one sentence spans four pages. Now, if Sendak is the master of brevity, why? I personally did not see anything flashy or ornate in any of his writing. Ah, but that is the point. I focus my microscope on his verbs: wore, made, called, said, eat, was sent, eating. With the addition of the possessive (eating), the total verb count in Sendak’s first sentence comes to a whopping seven verbs! “The price of clarity is vigor with detail,” writes Hall. “Verbs are the most vigorous parts of speech; by particularity, they add to detail” (46). Yes, I agree and see that Mr. Sendak’s use of verbs add vigor and vitality to the prose. There is energy, understated energy, but energy nonetheless.
Use The Right Verbs
However, I noticed that tucked into the long list of verbs was (Dare I say it?) a passive verb! Mr. Hall says that passive verbs are noncommittal (41). Later on he writes, “When most writers use the passive, they usually subtract meaning from their prose” (43). If passive verbs are “bad,” then why did Sendak, a man who clearly fretted over every word, include a passive verb? Donald Hall gives this one caveat:
“When you decide to use a passive for variety, only be certain that you are not using it for any of the reasons that make passives bad: diffidence, false modesty, evasion of responsibility, or the imitation of scientific respectability” (45).
Sendak’s use of the passive is the work of an obsessive compulsive wordsmith. For example, writing, “His mother sent Max to bed” suggests that Max is weak and passive. Writing, “so he was sent to bed” shows the reader the mother’s fragile control over her son. Max goes to his room, but he acquiesces very much like an imprisoned monarch. Both Max and his mother want control, but neither is accomplishing it — how appropriate, how “reasoned” for Sendak to include the passive verb.
Sendak riddles his sentences with verbs. Why then are they so … plain? Isn’t great writing one that “glitzes” and glimmers? Beware of fancy verbs that add little but opulence to the sentence, warns Hall. Sometimes modesty is the best policy: especially when it comes to verbs (48). Hall chides any writer for making up words (as in glitzes). There is a strong desire, especially in this Postmodern era, to “jazzize” verbs. Prudence admonishes a mastery of language, encouraging the writer to jazz the sentence with familiar, accurate verbs. The former betrays the writer’s immaturity while the latter displays his mastery. “Therefore it is bad style [….]” says Hall, “The writer should search the language for the simplest and most direct way of saying and expressing; he should never make up a new word when an old one will do” (48).
Consider Sendak’s second sentence:
“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew — and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are” (6 – 14).
Perhaps Sendak should be crowned the king of the run-on-sentence. About seven verbs adorn this wordy necklace, but the effect is clear. The verbs push the prose along. The verbs still do not flash, rather they sparkle like little diamonds inset into a simple, gold ring. Such words being “hung,” and “tumbled.” The temptation for most inexperienced writers is to cram each sentence with explosive verbs. Instead of “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew — and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became a world all around and an ocean tumbled ….” It might degrade into, “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and sprouted — and tangled until his ceiling crawled with vines and the walls rippled into a world all around and an ocean boiled ….” Not the same, is it? Could Donald Hall be right? Is less rather more? “Though the general advice — to choose color over pallor, energy over lethargy — holds true, one matter overrides all others, in any discussion of style, the matter of appropriateness: context is all” (47). Mr. Hall explains that although colorful verbs are preferable, context trumps vitality. This is demonstrated by the sentence I rewrote. Some parts of the revision could hold, “until his ceiling crawled with vines,” but the context, the stylistic flavor of the writing prefers the simple to the ornate.
But is the ornate ever preferred? Can’t a writer add a little spit shine? Susan Marie Swanson demonstrates a unique perspective on verbs in her Caldecott masterpiece, The House in the Night. Swanson’s first sentence is night and day different from Sendak’s. “Here is the key to the house” (3). The sentence structure befuddles me, beginning with an adverb (here), then verb (is), and lastly the subject (key). This sentence is far from boring. Only one verb — is — smudges the black and white page. The structure of Swanson’s second sentence is equally strange: “In the house burns a light.” Why not write, “A light burns in the house.” The sentence structure is poetic, understated and mellow. The author’s use of vibrant verbs mirrors the illustrative magic painting the page. The page is black and white, colored only by golden highlights. Reflexively, the sentence is mellow, accented by colorful verbs: “rests a bed,” “waits a book,” “breathes a song,” “glows the moon.” Yet even here, the verbs are not audacious.
Your Style Will Affect Your Choice of Verbs
When considering Donald Hall’s argument, his condemnation of opulence, and command for brevity; I cannot help but think of the wordy style of 20th century writers A.A. Milne, and Beatrix Potter. “Most of the time, when we use a wordy adjective/noun-verb phrase, we are merely trying to sound more complicated” (43). Milne writes in The Complete Tales of Pooh:
While all this was happening, Piglet had gone back to his own house to get Eeyore’s balloon. He held it very tightly against himself, so that it shouldn’t blow away, and he ran as fast as he could so as to get to Eeyore before Pooh did; for he thought that he should like to be the first one to give a present, just as if he had thought of it without being told by anybody (81).
Beatrix Potter writes, “Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate” (5). The talkative, tangled writing of Milne and Potter gives The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh and The Tale of Peter Rabbit their charm. “The sensible rule: Use the shorter, more direct verb except when the longer variation has a precision that your meaning requires” (Hall 43). Both Milne and Potter pack their sentences with verbs. In Milne’s writing style, someone is either moving or talking. Potter does the same. Their verbs are simple, always simple. Each verb functioning to move the story. Not one is showy.
Style and voice are not enemies of the verb. One can be verbose (Milne is verbose) but “Try to use verbs that act” pleads Hall ( 41). Sendak, Swanson, Milne, and Potter agree with Hall. Clear, purposeful verbs deliver moving prose. Less is indeed more.
Hall, Donald. Writing Well. Boston: Little, Brown &, 1976. Print.
Milne, A. A. The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: Dutton Children’s, 1994. Print.
Potter, Beatrix. The Great Big Treasury of Beatrix Potter. New York: Derrydale, 1992. Print.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.
Swanson, Susan Marie. The House in the Night. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.