Monday, May 13, 2013

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

By Constance Hale

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

A smooch for Hale. She defined her "Smooch"—a section she uses to end each chapter—as an opportunity for "showcasing writing that is so good you’ll want to kiss its creator" (p. 18). Her book features "juicy words, sentences that rock, and subjects that startle" (. 18).

Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye! Calling all readers, writers, and connoisseurs of the English language—don’t overlook this book. It is one of the richest, most edifying, thought provoking, thoroughly engrossing, sumptuously satisfying, and completely entertaining books I have read.

With 17 pages of splendid notes, a fabulous "Selected Bibliography" (10 pages), and 36 pages of appendices, Hale offers readers all they need (and more!) of resources. In books of this nature, one thrill comes from the tremendous depth of understanding Hale reveals and another from the breadth of knowledge displayed. I am immediately reminded of Roy Peter Clark’s, The Glamour of grammar: A guide to the magic and mystery of practical English (another 5-star book that I previously reviewed for Amazon). In my mind, both books are "must reads"—and for many of the same reasons.

Hale’s language is delightful and her instructions specific and to the point. Here is but one morsel as an example: "Are we splitting hairs? No. Graceful style requires graceful words. Precision requires nuance. Take utilize, a distinct word having a distinct sense: ‘to turn to practical use or account.’ It suggests a deliberate decision or an effort to employ something or someone for a practical purpose. If what you mean to say is "use," utilize is a pretentious substitute" (p. 97). Valuable for her directness; invaluable for her insight.

Hale’s previous book, Sin and Syntax, has received 57 reviews (02-17-13) at Amazon and has received a 4.5 star (out of 5) rating. In addition, Hale has excellent credentials with which to write these books, but you don’t need me to tell you that since any single page in this 296-page (of text material) book fully reveals her qualifications. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Wired, and Health. But, the fact that she has taught at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and at UC Berkeley Extension (all from the back flyleaf), is especially relevant because so much of the book reveals her deep interest in educating readers—just as she instructed her students. Her "Try, Do, Write, Play" sections scattered throughout each chapter are so practical and valuable. They will challenge serious readers—those interested in developing their writing skills as well as those who seek to polish, hone, and perfect already present abilities—to pursue writing through well-thought-out projects and activities. There is no question that Hale envisioned the use of her book in writing classes; however, allow yourself to be your own instructor, and let Hale be your teacher. The guidance she offers is outstanding.

So many captivating examples, such a wonderful narrative, so much high-quality writing, this should become part of your library, a reference book that will help you every time you open it. There are new insights on every page, and Hale makes learning English a joy. She takes readers by the hand and gently—with great understanding, respect, and care—leads them toward crafting their own style. "A stylish writer," Hale says, "has a command of language, literary devises, supple sentences, and tone—as well as a distinctive voice" (p. 293).

What Hale does, however, is to take readers beyond the parts of a sentence—beyond the proper use of verbs, for example—and, in the end, helps them develop their writing style, a style that underscores and complements the subject at hand. (p. 294) After all, that’s what it’s all about—making our words "dance in our every sentence" (p. 296).

Anyone interested in words will benefit from her language lessons. She truly lives up to her promise: "You’ll have a chance to understand how a particular verb can bend your writing in a new way, or how a particular aspect of syntax can allow you to write sad, write sexy, write mad, write funny, write brave, write eloquent" (p. 18).

Hale deserves not just a smooch, but a magnificent, awe-inspiring, one-of-a-kind, monumental kiss that possesses some enduring, immutable, and everlasting significance. Can anyone really measure-up to that standard? Hale does.

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