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Celebrate National Grammar Day

That’s right, March 4 is National Grammar Day. How exciting! My post today talks about my favorite part of speech (verbs) and issue a challenge that you can add to your bag of writing tricks before National Grammar Day 2009 rolls around.

The Wonderful, Lovable Verb

“Why does she like verbs so much?” you probably asked yourself. Verbs are the most powerful part of the sentence. Without a good, strong verb, a sentence stagnates. You just have “people, places, and things,” those traditional nouns, lounging around, inactive. Verbs bring vitality and life to even the most boring of sentences.

Using Verbs (and Other Parts of Speech) Ineffectively

Unfortunately, many people use dull, lifeless verbs to obfuscate meaning, either because they want to shroud their message or because they don’t know any better. Take this sentence for example:

The man was found beaten by the police.

The passive voice (which includes changing the verb around) makes it unclear whether the police found a man who had been beaten or someone discovered that the police had beaten the man. Now, the active versus passive argument isn’t 100% verb, but it does show how the verb can be manipulated to disguise the true meaning. Here’s another example:

In response to the issue of equality for educational and occupational mobility, it is my belief that a system of inequality exists in the school system.

This is an example right out of Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (p. 3) (that’s right, fellow members of Eng 600, I’m quoting Lanham) , and I have to admit, the first time I encountered this train wreck of a sentence, I had to read it several times to fully understand the message. Why? Because the action is buried in “shun” words and prepositional phrases instead of where it should be. You guessed it: The action should be expressed in the verb! Lanham clarifies the message to the succinct “I believe that gender inequality exists in the schools.” Well, why didntcha just say so?!

Lanham argues that “In [the field of literary study], writing plan English nowadays is tantamount to walking down the hall naked as a jaybird, Public places demand protective coloration; sometimes you must write [with a dominance of nouns and an atrophy of verbs]”. But Lanham–and I!–argue that it does not have to be this way.

The Challenge

Don’t bury the action, the passion, the motion of your sentences in nouns. Don’t let prepositional phrases carry the movement in your prose. Resolve this year to focus on carefully proofreading what you write for verb usage. Try to use “be” verbs less as the main verbs in your writing (except where necessary, of course!). You might even consider picking up a copy of Revising Prose to get some one-on-one instruction.

So, I want to know: What is your favorite part of speech? Do you like verbs as much as I do?

Slightly edited image source

7 thoughts on “Celebrate National Grammar Day

  1. Cubicle Queen

    15 Mar on 2008 at 12:34

    I recently decided that I needed a brush-up course on grammar. Grammar was one of my strong points back in junior and senior high school. I LOVED to diagram sentences! That was many years ago, and I have forgotten much of what I learned. Sarah suggested listening to the Grammar Girl podcast. Now Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) and I are friends on Facebook and are following each other on Twitter. Next year I will be ready for National Grammar Day!

  2. Linden

    05 Mar on 2008 at 13:22

    @ww: Ugh, relative clauses are my bane.

    @Дж. Хьюз: LOL!!!

    @Daniel: Dare I suggest it… I believe I hear some sarcasm there… <3

  3. Daniel

    05 Mar on 2008 at 1:14

    Umm, yeah I love verbs Lindy!. I mark Grammar day on my calendar every year too! I can’t wait! yay!

  4. Дж. Хьюз

    04 Mar on 2008 at 16:04

    National Grammar Day is being celebrated by me through the exclusive use of the passive voice, although the impersonal is sometimes slipped into when a need for clarity is sensed: It is being barked by Eefy and Yongy, therefore a walk is necessary.

  5. ww

    04 Mar on 2008 at 15:33

    It’s hard to pick just one favorite part of speech or grammatical construction. I have a fondness for relative clauses that is hard to explain. Often my “favorite” grammatical construction is the one I’m studying at the time. :)

    As far as what I’m doing to celebrate National Grammar Day, I’ll probably blog about my feelings about grammar later. :D

  6. Linden

    04 Mar on 2008 at 14:45

    @ww: I need to clarify: I do not disagree with the use of the passive voice. I only believe that it can obscure the true meaning; that is when it should be avoided.

    You didn’t say… do you have a favorite part of speech or grammatical principle? What are you doing to celebrate NGD?

  7. ww

    04 Mar on 2008 at 14:19

    I do love verbs, but I have to admit that I disagree some of the prescriptive principles in your post. For one, I feel that the passive voice has an important place in writing at the discourse level that gets lost when one discusses it at the sentence level. But anyway, it’s fabulous that people are talking about grammar, whatever the motivation! Happy Grammar Day!