Word By Word
Oh, those sticky part of speech! If we reach back to our eighth grade English classes (thank you, the formidable Mrs. Eleanor Carrizzo at R. L. Simpson Junior High in Huntington, N.Y., for being such a stickler), we remember that nouns represent people, places, “things,” and ideas, and that verbs—the action words—must agree with the noun in tense. Sentences can be formed with just these two elements: “Jim read,” “Anna screamed,” etc. All of the other parts of speech: adjective, adverb, preposition, pronoun, conjunction, and interjection, are secondary to the noun and verb.
Identifying nouns is easy. Any person or place identifies as a noun: girl, city, ocean, ski slope (Amanda, New York, Pacific, and Vail are all proper nouns and must be capitalized). As for “things,” just look around and you will notice tangible nouns surrounding you: chair, garden, wall, sky. Ideas are also nouns, although they are intangible: freedom, love, peace, joy.
Instead of linking tired verbs to your plethora of nouns, try to use vibrant verbs to add punch to your writing. If Jody falls, why not have her stumble or collapse? If Henry thinks, why not have him imagine or conjure? When I used to teach sophomore English, students spent one day perusing dictionaries using the letter of their first name to develop a list of vivid verbs (now lists like this can be found online for writing helps). Another tip: avoid using passive or weak verbs, such as “is” and “was,” unless you choose to use them for speed or effect.
Here are some other tips for boosting the efficacy of parts of speech in your writing:
1. Use adjectives—describing words—to color your writing. Example: The leafless tree bent in the unabating wind.
2. Avoid adverbs—words that describe a verb, and often end in “-ly”—sparingly . The general rule for writing is to “show,” not “tell.” Write the scene and trust your reader’s intellect.
3. Utilize prepositions—words that describe the placement of the noun—whenever and wherever you can. Readers will visualize your scene: is the burglar behind the door, above the garage, below the stairs? Is the police officer across the street, around the corner, beneath the patrol car?
4. Know your pronouns: First person (the one doing the action): I/me, we/us; second person (the one hearing or reading): you/you; third person (the one or ones being spoken to or written about): he/she/it, him/her/it, they/them. There are 10 different types of pronouns, but if you aren’t bored with this grammar lesson by now, I am not going to put you to sleep!
5. Conjunctions are the joining words: and, yet, but, etc. You can’t live without them, but be cognizant of your comma use when using conjunctions. Commas can be overused or underused, and neither is optimal.
6. Interjections are exciting words! We use exclamation points when we use them! But don’t use them too often! They can be distracting!
7. Be sure to use correct verb tense with nouns. The most revered resource is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame).
8. Read your work aloud. If it doesn’t grab you, it won’t grab your reader.
9. Back to nouns. Avoid the word “thing” in your writing. The word “thing” is the laziest word in the English language. Everything is a “thing.” Name it: pencil, dagger, shovel, necklace.
Until next month, put your head down and get to work. Words don’t appear on the page by magic.