V Is for Verb

This one’s going to be short because I’ve got a job due today. It isn’t an especially long or complicated job, and I’ve had plenty of time to get it done, but as usual it was contending with other jobs that had earlier deadlines.

So — verbs. Verbs are indispensable. You pretty much can’t have a sentence without a verb, but a verb can be a sentence with no help from any other parts of speech: Stop! Go! Read!

They’re also versatile. From verbs grow gerunds, which function as nouns and can actually turn into nouns: Reading is fundamental. I haven’t finished the reading.

From verbs grow participles, past and present, which can function as adjectives: After the baked loaves came out of the oven, she put her baking utensils away.

Dangling participles are something editors and writers have to watch out for, but I hope they never go away because some of them are very funny. Here’s one from the Oxford Dictionaries online: “If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company $12 billion.” The default subject for “found” is “the lawsuit,” but lawsuits are generally not tried in court. If it’s the company on trial, then make it “If the company is found guilty, the lawsuit could cost it $12 billion” — but without more context we don’t know that for sure. It might be one of the company’s higher-ups.

Infinitives can dangle too — to submit your manuscript, it must have one-inch margins on all sides — but what makes many people nervous about infinitives is the splitting, not the dangling. This worry arose because in other languages, notably Latin, infinitives are one word and can’t be split. In English the infinitive includes to: “to submit,” It’s definitely possible to slip another word or two between “to” and its verb, and often it’s a good idea. Placement of an adverb, say, can affect the cadence or emphasis of a sentence or line of poetry.

Infinitives are versatile little buggers. Don’t be afraid of them.

What turns some ordinarily mild-mannered editors and teachers into wild-eyed partisans these days is the verbing of nouns. “Verbing weirds language,” says Calvin in a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip from January 25, 1993.

My editorial mentor, ca. 1980, couldn’t abide the verbing of “target.” Some while later I took up the cudgel against “impact.” Some while even later than that, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a big step from “to aim at a target” to “to target,” or from “to have an impact” to “to impact.” Sure, “affect” means pretty much the same thing, but “impact” makes a bigger boom.

Where I do draw the line is when a verb spawns a noun that is then unnecessarily verbed: administer -> administration -> administrate. No no no no.

The manuscript that’s due back at the publisher’s today isn’t a cookbook, but it does contain some recipes. One suggests that you “may brulee the marshmallows until golden brown” before putting them on top of your spiked hot chocolate.

I screeched to a halt. “Crème brûlée” I knew: a custard with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. I knew enough French to recognize “brûlée” as the feminine past participle of brûler, to burn. Since I don’t edit cookbooks but I do know that cookbookery has its own conventions, I wondered if “brulee” had been verbed in cookbook English, and if so, should the diacritics be included?

Off I trotted to the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, whose members include editors in myriad fields who speak a daunting array of languages. What I learned was that diacritics are customarily used in good cookbooks but that “brulee” didn’t seem to have been verbed in English.

At this point I realized that the big problem had nothing to do with verbing or diacritics. The big problem is that the author hadn’t made it clear what you were supposed to do with the marshmallows. Unlike crème brûlée, marshmallows aren’t sprinkled with a layer of sugar that can be caramelized with a torch. Around campfires or fireplaces marshmallows are generally toasted, but how about in the kitchen?

Clearly it was time to go back to Q for query, so that’s what I’ve done.

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2 thoughts on “V Is for Verb

    • Thanks! I’m having a good time with it, and I’m more than a little bit amazed that I’ve managed to keep up. It’s absorbed a big chunk of my writing energy, however, and work on draft #2 of the novel in progress has slowed to a crawl. Fortunately I’m still several scenes ahead of my writers’ group. 🙂

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