Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing

by Constance Hale

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

VERBS, reckons author Constance Hale, run deep in our DNA. And yes, she says, you should take her literally because “the human version of the FOXP2 gene gives us our capacity for speech and therefore for verbs”.

Well, okay, but by that reckoning surely every other part of speech must be embedded there, too.

There’s no doubt, though, that these so-called action words are what drives a piece of prose – and, indeed, any other kind of writing – and the enthusiastic manner in which Hale celebrates them is contagious and sometimes startling, as is the speed with which new verbs are added to the English language.

There are somewhere between 45,000 and 85,000 among the 315,000 to 600,000 words listed by “reputable” English dictionaries, reckons Hale, “… from abacinate (to blind by placing hot irons, or metal plates, in front of the eyes) to zoon (to move quickly, making a buzzing sound)”. And although in Hale’s words, “we can’t verbalise without verbs” – as her fascinating guide illustrates – it’s debatable whether a whole book on the subject is really warranted.

What Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch aims to provide is verbal dexterity, she says: “the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango”.

I’m guessing she means as smooth as the tango should be – she’s obviously never seen me on the dance floor!

That aside, Hale, who is also the author of Wired Style and Sin and Syntax, certainly takes the vexation out of historic language lash-ups as she shows us how to hex, smash and smooch our way to sharper writing.

She does it well, too, jolting us out of any torpor we may have, tearing down stultifying rules and firing off examples in lively manner as she disentangles “smashed-together” ideas on language and style.

Metaphor, musicality, the very voice of a piece, all matter greatly to Hale, much to my delight, making Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch – by no means a have-to-have book – a worthwhile addition to any word-lover’s book shelf.

And besides, who wouldn’t love someone who has a mailing list called Miss Thistlebottom? NOT — especially for educators “all over the globe” — with monthly dispatches to help teachers in the classroom?

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale is published by WW Norton & Company.

(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Thursday, October 18th, 2012 at 4:42 pm and is filed under A Passion for Words . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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