Why you should vex, hex, smash and smooch

Word count: 370 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today, I focus on a new offering from Constance Hale.

If Constance Hale writes it, I will read it. As a huge fan of her earlier book, Sin and Syntax, I was delighted to receive a copy of her newest spritely work, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch in which she tackles verbs.

Did you know the English language has somewhere between 45,000 and 85,000 verbs? As Hale puts it: “Pick a sentence, any sentence, and you’ll see that the verb makes the damn thing tick.” The oldest English verb appears to be swear (AD 688)  and the newest entries include: autosave, debone, jet-set and Scotchguard.

But Hale’s book is much more than a reference work. It’s a celebration of verbs, a paean to them. In each of 12 chapters — covering topics such as bastard verbs and sentence fragments — Hale provides a “vex” section (examining linguistics and grammar), a “hex” component (suggesting “rules” that can be broken), a “smash” entry (presenting goofs and glitches from other writers) and a “smooch” segment (showcasing truly fine writing.)

I enjoy Hale’s own lively writing style (“English is not only a mutt, it’s a hungry mutt, scarfing up lively words from all corners,” she writes.) I also like the way she refuses to be cowed by popular stylistic edicts. For example, she argues — convincingly — that the passive is under-valued, and that not all Latin words are pompous (take a look at: belt, bin, cook, cup, pan, pit, sack, sock, stop and wall.)

I particularly admire the examples of sterling writing she cites. My favourite? A New Yorker piece by Garrison Keillor  in which a gaggle of Manhattanites needs to hop across an enormous puddle. Here is Keillor’s best line: “One tall man in a brown coat didn’t notice the water and stepped off the curb into fast-flowing Hydrant Creek and made a painful hop, like a wounded heron: a brown heron with a limp wing attached to a briefcase bulging as if full of dead fish.”

Hale understands that the best writers are always the best readers. Read her book to get the skinny on verbs.