What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.

When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.

Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’.  Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.

But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.

Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.

Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.

Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:

trepan

Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.

After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.

Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.

Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)

Other various examples of verbs done well:

Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.

‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.

Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.

Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.

Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free)  OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.

The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.

onelook dictionary

I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:

onelook filter

When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:

layer related to meat

As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.

Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:

(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)

For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:

And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:

OneLook parts of speech

OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).

Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.

Another impressive dictionary which is not much to look at: WordNet. WordNet is especially useful if you have a verb in word but you know you need the less specific or more specific version of that word. These terms are best illustrated by making use of WordNet itself but in brief:

The more specific version is called a hyponym.

A holonym denotes a whole whose part is denoted by another term.

A meronym denotes part of something but which is used to refer to the whole of it.

How To Write A Metaphor

how to write a metaphor

Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor. When writing, you’ll find yourself writing metaphor subconsciously as well as consciously. One pass of editing should focus on imagery, to nix accidental, not-so-great metaphors.

Metaphors are privileged areas for lying: by granting authors these limited flights of fancy, readers kid themselves into believing that what is not figurative in a text is somehow ‘truer’.

– Jason K. Friedman in Goth: Undead Subculture

Example: Good Metaphor

From Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly (by Dave Eggers), set in Tanzania:

A woman on the tour bus has ‘leonine hair, frayed and thick, blond and white’.

Tanzania = lions = good metaphor because it reflects the setting.

 

Here’s another from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), describing Frank’s place of work:

At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, others treading water, some seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.

There are several different metaphors in the paragraph above (fire and mazes included), though those first metaphors don’t really jump out because they have become a part of the language. (‘A maze of corridors’ has become cliche – though we shouldn’t despise the cliche too much – it gets its meaning across.)

The extended metaphor of the sea of swimmers is particularly well done because, although I’ve seen similar open-plan offices in my life, I had never made the connection that the workers in such an office are like swimmers. When Yates describes how each is at a different stage of submersion, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it looks’.

But the true brilliance of this extended metaphor is how it relates to the theme. Frank Wheeler’s mediocre suburban life is itself a form of slow drowning, even though at first glance, this cruisy job feels like a day at the beach.

The Sea = Frank Wheeler’s Workplace = A slow drowning disguised as a harmless environment = A very good metaphor because it echoes the theme.

Example: Bad Metaphor

Perpetrator: me, some years ago.

My story was set in contemporary New Zealand. High school students are in a car, making their way to a school ball. Comment below comes courtesy of a writing group critter:

Streetlamps flash-danced by, [1] and neon signs and traffic lights and ordinary people making their way to ordinary places. Why couldn’t everyone have this much fun, every night, everywhere?


[l1]Nice echo of Katherine Mansfield here, but I’m not sure of the purpose of it.

Exactly. There was no good reason  to include ‘flashdance’ in a contemporary story for young adults. Not when the setting is New Zealand. Not when flash-dancing should get the reader humming ‘What a feeling!’, if anything at all.

Flashdance = America = 1980s = bad metaphor. I took it out.

Related Links

Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect from Lit Reactor

Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors at Patheos

*ck-Lit

chick-lit: a sometimes derogatory term for literature aimed at women, about single women in their twenties who are looking for love

trick-lit: “Trick Lit is the term [Seth Godin invented] for a chick lit novel that pretends to be something else, hoping to rope people in with an interesting premise. 30 pages later, you discover that you were deceived, that it’s just another piece of genre trash.” Interestingly, there’s no such word to describe a word for serious literature written by women which nevertheless gets covered in pastel covers (a la the dark and brilliant work of Lionel Shriver).

clit-lit: romance aimed at women but with more erotica than usual

dick-lit: chick-lit for men

quick-lit: Expression that encompasses both chick lit and dick lit. Essentially quick lit is light, contemporary fiction that is quickly and easily read and (most often) takes place in an urban environment.

sick-lit: a subgenre of YA which deals with characters who are in some way physically incapacitated, whether it’s from cancer (The Fault In Our Stars), mental illness, or recovering from an accident (If I Stay)

hick-lit: a specifically American genre featuring parochial characters without much money living in the country

brick-lit: that genre of travel literature in which a sophisticatedly jaded man, woman, or couple falls in love with a crumbling farmhouse in some exotic, rural locale and in the comic struggle to restore said farmhouse, and via encounters with the native populace, gleans profound lessons about life, love, and local color. —Jonathan Miles, Garden and Gun

flick-lit: books which have been adapted for the big screen

click-lit: one of the many words for ‘transmedia storytelling’. “”The idea is to make something inspired by the novel – where the book is the brief – rather than an obvious dramatisation, so that it has the potential to go beyond the book and to add something to the reading experience.” (The Guardian)

kick-lit: literature about football

thick-lit: a term used to describe the kind of literature that is not worthy of serious study, but which is nevertheless studied in schools.

s(c)tick-lit: A writing genre in which the author undertakes an odd or stuntlike project with the intention of writing about the experience.

mick-lit: A category of Popular, generally humorous, literature by Irish male writers, and about the Irish Male Condition. Includes authors such as John Banville, Ross O’Carroll Kelly, and even classic authors such James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.

Further Suggestions

broomstick-lit: a subgenre of fantasy featuring witches who ride broomsticks, keep black cats and brew potions in cauldrons

lipstick-lit: books you love so much you actually kiss them

tick-lit: canonical works you feel you should read, but you only read them so you can tick them off your bucket list

homesick-lit: books set in your hometown, or read when younger in a comfortable, homely spot, which you re-read when you’re away at college or on AFS

yardstick-lit: books writers read in their own genre, and can’t help comparing their own work to

toothpick-lit: meaty stories

picnic-lit: paperbacks about food that you slip into a picnic basket and read while lying under a tree

seasick-lit: books which are full of emotional ups-and-downs and leave you in a different place after you’ve put them down (with relief)

candlestick-lit: stories set in Gothic mansions

walking-stick-lit: stories enjoyed by your Nan and Pop

politic-lit: chick-lit written about politics e.g. Campaign Ruby by Jessica Rudd

arithmetic-lit: fiction featuring a magical world which works on maths. Includes heavy mathematical explanations.

dip-stick lit: stories about mechanics

slick-lit: stories about oil spills

 

Everyday Words Whose Scientific Meanings Are Different

THEORY

In everyday language, a theory is something that hasn’t been proven. We use it to mean ‘hypothesis’.

I don’t know why socks go missing but I have a  theory.

MARK COLVIN: Do you think that to a degree [the theory of evolution is] a communication failure by science? Do you think that just the very word, “theory”, in the “theory of evolution” has misled people?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, I think that’s not the only communication failure. I think that simply not bothering to go out there and talk in the public square is part of the problem.

– from this interview.

Here’s how the word ‘theory’ works in scientific literature, compared to some similar words:

  • Hypothesis–>An educated (or uneducated) guess
  • Science Method–>The 7 step process to test said guess
  • Theory–>The “why” of something works
  • Law–>The “what” of something that works

courtesy of Freethought Blogs.

NATURAL

In common usage, ‘natural’ = ‘good’.

The Incredible Arrogance of Thinking ‘Natural’ Means ‘Good’

This one is a marketing difference and it pays to remind oneself regularly: brown packaging and ‘natural’ on the box doesn’t mean jack. Cancer. That, too, is ‘natural’.

CASUISTRY

A college professor taught me the word “casuistry” when it came up in office hours during a conversation we were having about a presentation I was slated to give on John Donne. It has two definitions: the first more technical definition has something to do with applying abstract rules to concrete instances. The second, in more common usage, is something like “specious, sophistic reasoning.” It’s especially associated with the Jesuits, who (allegedly) used it to rationalize light punishments for aristocratic sinners. It’s a great word. I especially like to use it when I’m losing an argument, because even if, say, my husband is being perfectly logical, nothing undermines a debate by calling him a casuist.

Persephone

SYMBIOSIS

In science, symbiosis means ‘a close relationship’. There are four main kinds of symbiosis, one of which is mutualism.

In everyday English, when people talk about ‘a symbiotic relationship’ we are most often talking about mutualism, or ‘a mutual relationship’, which would be technically more accurate.

Apart from mutualism,  three other types of symbiosis are:

  1. Commensalism, in which one species benefits while the other remains unaffected
  2. Parasitism, in which one species benefits while the other is harmed
  3. Neutralism, in which both species are unaffected

TOXIN

Common Usage: Man-made chemicals

Scientific Usage: Biologically produced poisons.

(Toxoid: A toxin which has been rendered no longer toxic eg. a vaccination is ‘toxoid’, which doesn’t exactly help the vaccination cause.)

 

MYTH

Myth
from A Comprehensible Universe: The interplay of Science and Theology

EPIDEMIC

Scientists generally use the term “epidemic” to refer to a disease that occurs suddenly in a discrete population, an outbreak. An epidemic is not declared on the basis of high numbers but on the speed or rate that new cases pop up. In the nineteenth century, the word was used almost exclusively to describe a wave of infectious disease. In the typical graph of an epidemic, the number of cases is plotted against a measurement of time, such as days or weeks, to show how quickly the disease is spreading.

With the notable exception of AIDS, in modern times we’ve had less experience than previous generations with fast-moving infectious diseases, like polio or smallpox, that can affect entire populations. As a result, the time component of the definition of an epidemic has become less crucial. As one consequence, the definition of ‘epidemic’ has broadened. Now, we use the word with little reference to the speed at which new cases are occurring, which puts us one step away from the original usage. And when we talk about epidemics of conditions that are not contagious — such as skin cancer, autism, anorexia nervosa, and teen pregnancy — or conditions and situations that are not even real diseases — like alien abduction, or satanic child abuse — we’re two steps away.

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism by Roy Richard Grinker

Related Link

What scientists say in research papers vs. What they actually mean, from io9