It sure has been a busy couple of weeks. My reminder to read and blog about the next chapter in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style book really snuck up on me. I did manage to read Chapter 3 on verb phrases yesterday, but I just could find that quiet hour to write up my blog post about it.
My undergraduate degree is in English. I started out planning to be a high school English teacher, but discovered technical writing along the way, so I changed the emphasis to writing and editing from education. Still, I read a lot of literature (happily so) on my way to graduation. So, this English major was tickled to see this chapter begin with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald quoting a line from John Keats, who I did an independent study on. By providing an example, Tufte expressed her main thesis for the chapter: verbs are the “very essence of a sentence” (p. 63).
She speaks of main predicates, but also the other verb phrases, including participles, gerunds, and infinitives (oh my!). Here’s where she has the artfulness come in: “Verbs can help to animate other structures, their energy level becoming almost contagious. Their intensities and rhythms invigorate other parts of speech and syntactic arrangements to create sustained patterns and levels of activity” (p. 64). I must admit that thinking about all of the style guidelines for technical communication, which give great grammatical advice about choosing concrete active verbs, none of those guidelines come close to driving home the real impact that verbs have on a sentence like those two sentences did (for me, anyway).
Here’s my list of the takeaways about verb phrases (links in this list go to the Online Writing Lab from Purdue University, where I turn to for grammar explanations that I can share with the writers that I support:
- If you choose your verbs carefully, you can avoid adding clauses and modifiers that might otherwise complicate your sentences. (p. 65)
- By using a present participle, you can give a sense of “immediacy or ongoing activity” (p. 67)
- Gerunds provide a sense of a “continuing process” (p. 68)
- Infinitives, like finite verbs, brings “vigor” to your sentences (p. 69)
- Past participles are “descriptive” in nature (p. 69)
Tufte presents quite a case (citing a few sources) for allowing split infinitives. (Don’t everyone gasp at once!) But, my favorite discussion that Tufte presented was on the topic of passive voice, a much debated topic in technical communication. When “the subject receives the action,” (p. 78) that’s passive voice. Passive voice allows you to shift the topic or the emphasis. Syntactically speaking, it moves the noun phrase that was the subject toward the end of the sentence, allowing you to add modifiers more readily. Passive voice also lets you leave out the agent, which in technical communication can be a handy tool in our writing toolbox. I keyed in on the use of passive for emphasis, and the role that might play in writing, say, error messages perhaps. The shifting and moving of the subject can allow sentences to flow together, to communicate more clearly from sentence to sentence.
In closing, I will leave you with what got stuck in my head as I finished reading this chapter. Good ol’ Schoolhouse Rock, Verb: That’s What’s a’Happening!
Happy editing everyone!