Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is the memorable name of a new book by Constance Hale; its subtitle, Let Verbs Power Your Writing, reveals it to be a handbook for the craft. In its introduction Hale sets out her primary aim – to teach “the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango” by shining a light on what “pulses . . . at the heart of English”: verbs.
The smoochworthy title, we soon learn, is not just a list of fetching verbs but a structural device. Each chapter has a Vex section that lays out a problem, dipping into history, linguistics and grammar; a Hex section that addresses and dismantles myths; a Smash section that analyses bad writing habits; and a Smooch section that showcases writing “so good you’ll want to kiss its creator”.
Supplementary side-boxes throughout the book deliver quotes, notes and historical anecdotes, tips, rhymes and resources. There are juicy facts galore (“Norman French gave English 10,000 new words, of which some 75 percent are still in use”), though these are occasionally questionable (Isn’t edit a back-formation from editor and French éditer, rather than edition?).
An early reference to the Global Language Monitor didn’t inspire confidence. I could’ve done without hearing its daft data again about how many English words there are, and learning the exact date and time the lexicon is supposed to have passed one million words. But Hale follows the GLM factoid with a link to David Crystal’s dismantling of it, and she has evidently read many such reliable sources. There are plenty of helpful endnotes, and the appendices – including a checklist of irregular verbs and an assessment of various dictionaries – are also fruitful.
Vex, Hex… contains lots of good writing guidance, albeit undermined sometimes by missteps and sweeping statements. “Whenever a verb gets buried in a pileup of nouns, try to out it” is solid advice, but the examples (we entered into an agreement; he was in violation) have no noun pileups. If “the best nouns are concrete”, does that mean spork and insole are better than serendipity and imagination? And if verbs were “mostly misunderstood”, wouldn’t communication be mostly unsuccessful?
Hale’s time as an editor at Wired has given her special insight into tech lingo, such as the complications of inflecting log in. She explains with admirable clarity the differences between may and might, and points out the specific meaning of utilise instead of damning it as a needless variant of use. She says new verbs work when they fill a gap and denote an action “in the most precise, succinct, and evocative way possible”, and her thoughts on phrasal verbs are largely sound and balanced:
phrasal verbs can lend a relaxed but confident tone to prose – get rid of helps us get rid of the Latinate eliminate, and phase out phases out the polysyllabic gradually discontinue. On the other hand, they can add baggage without adding heft, and they can blur meaning instead of sharpening it…
Though the book draws on the work of linguists, prescriptive grumbles recur: descriptivists are, it seems, aligned with the forces of chaos and “clap as language goes off the rails”. Hale censures where we’re at and peeves about lose out, centre around, and collide (colliding things, she insists, “both have to be moving”). She deplores diagnose as “ugly”, contact (v.) as too abstract, and orientate as “completely unnecessary”. I disagree in each case, but you might not.
Chapter 7 has a robust defence of the passive voice (though the author dislikes this use of the word voice), with thoughtful analysis of examples from the public domain. Hale shows deftly how it allows us to, among other things, “direct the reader’s attention where we want it to go.” Unfortunately, she misidentifies some passives. (Linguist Neal Whitman goes into this in more detail.)
Who Do You Trust?, a PBS headline and a Johnny Carson quiz show, is rejected as “dumb”: Hale prescribes whom and wonders if PBS is trying to “appeal to the hip crowd”. I think this is misguided: using who in such contexts has less to do with hip affectation than with simply sounding normal. Acknowledging in an endnote that whom has “begun to feel stilted” seems an insufficient afterthought.
The book is big enough to cover a lot of ground, looking at verb moods, tenses, voices, classes, histories and usage, and surveying predicates, gerunds, ditransitives, auxiliaries and more. Knotty aspects of grammar are tackled head-on. The style is brisk and proficient, though disconcertingly teenagey at times, at least to my ears (certain verbs let us express “new, cool things”; exclamation marks abound).
The last chapter proper, on “Headache Verbs”, is an enjoyable look at troublesome words, including commonly confused pairs and triplets. I’d have welcomed more mnemonics here – people confuse founder and flounder because the words are easily confused; they can look them up anywhere. Instead of yet another explanation of the differences, however well composed, I’d like to have seen more ways to help writers commit those differences to memory.
Still, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is an entertaining, enlivening book that will undoubtedly make you pay more attention to verbs, both in your own and in other people’s writing. Verbs deserve our close attention, and Hale’s book – at once a guide and a celebration – brims with it. I’m grateful to W. W. Norton for sending me a review copy.