Category Archives: revising weak verbs

Replacing weak or overused verbs with strong, specific ones.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

Five ways to write with style

Stylish, polished writing can be reduced to five elements, according to the author of more than 1,000 columns for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Dr. Stephen Wilbers* offers these five elements, which I have paraphrased.

Write concisely. Avoid wordy phrases, omit blah adjectives and adverbs, and replace nouns with action verbs.

Use vivid vocabulary.

Show, don’t tell by writing precise, concrete detail.

Listen for rhythm in your writing by reading it aloud and by varying sentence lengths.

Infuse your personality into your writing.

* http://www.wilbers.com/style.htm

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

How to summarize the prompt in the SAT essay writing section

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

I recommend that you summarize the essay prompt in one sentence to open your essay response.  After that you need to summarize the rest of the essay.  How?

The SAT prompt is usually five or six paragraphs long.  One of those paragraphs might be a hook; if so, the hook needn’t be mentioned unless the hook highlights the author’s style.  If so, include it in your summary.

The thesis is given to you in the paragraph following the SAT essay prompt, in the paragraph which gives you directions.  You need to know the thesis to know what the author’s point is, what he or she is trying to persuade you, the reader.  When you know what the thesis means, look for information in the prompt which backs up the thesis—not the tiny details, but the big ideas.

Sometimes the organization of the essay itself can help you summarize it.  In Dr. Martin Luther King’s essay, “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression,” King has one introductory sentence.  The next sentence, in the same paragraph, names the first way of meeting oppression, acquiescence.  Several sentences later, King says acquiescence is not a good way.  In another paragraph, King names the second way of meeting oppression, violence.  A few sentences later he explains why this is also not a good way.  Near the end of his essay, he names the third way of meeting oppression, nonviolent resistance, which he supports.  Summarizing the main ideas of this essay prompt is easy.

Unfortunately, most SAT prompts are not written with the organization so clear.  But the prompts are organized.  You need to figure out how.  Once you understand the organization, you can spot the main supports for the essay thesis.  Not always, but most of the time, each body paragraph contains a main support.  And most of the time, those supports are near the beginning of each paragraph.

If we look at The Declaration of Independence, it is clearly broken down into four distinct parts.  The first section introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the philosophical legitimacy of such a break. The third section names grievances the colonial people have against King George III.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.  Naming the four parts, as I just did, is sufficient to show that you understand the main ideas of the document.

How can you become quick and accurate in identifying the main ideas of an essay prompt?  Practice.  Read an essay a day from your newspaper.  If you don’t subscribe, go to your media center daily and read a column or editorial.  Analyze its contents for structure.  What is the thesis?  What are the main points backing up the thesis?  Practice writing them down quickly, in five to seven minutes.

If you go into the essay portion of the SAT without practice, you likely will do poorly.  But if you practice, knowing what is expected of you, your chances go way up.

 

 

Words to eliminate from your writing

Yesterday I helped a third grader revise her writing.  After the third time “so” appeared as a sentence opener, she recognized the repetition and went back to the beginning, crossing out that word.  “I use too many so’s,” she said without prompting from me.

We all have words like “so” in our writing.  What are some words you should be wary of overusing, or using at all?

Very.  Your writing is stronger without “very.”  Mark Twain suggested substituting “damn” when you write “very.” He said, if you need “damn,” use it, but if not, don’t use “very.”  “Very” is intended to strengthen the verb it modifies, but in fact, the verb is stronger without this modifier.

Really and almost all adverbs which end in –ly.  Think of these adverbs as crutches holding up the verbs they modify.  Take away the crutches and strengthen the verbs.

Then.  When we write about events happening in sequence, we might need to use “then” to keep the ordering clear to us.  But readers know you are telling events in chronological order.  They don’t need “then.”  So eliminate the “thens” when you are done.

Just.  So.  LikeRather.  Actually.  Figure out which words you overuse and eliminate them.

Words which mean “said.”  Use “said” if you need to identify who is speaking, but skip its synonyms unless you want the reader to focus on how something is said.  “Hollered,” “whispered,” and “choked” focus the reader on the way something is said.  Usually you want to focus on the meaning of words, not on how they are said.

Said.  Most of the time it’s obvious who is speaking, and “said” isn’t needed.  (But sometimes it is.)

Start and Begin.  Everything starts or begins.  Unless you are focusing on the beginning of something, skip these words.

Up, down.  He fell down.  Can he fall up?  She reached up into the overhead luggage compartment.  Can she reach down into such a compartment?

That.  When “that” introduces a dependent clause, it might not be needed.  Read what you’ve written with and without “that.”  If it reads fine without, take out “that.”

Famous forensic linguist cases

The publication of an anonymously written op-ed piece in The New York Times in early September brought to mind the idea of a “forensic linguist” or word detective. The term “forensic linguist” was coined in the late 1960s, though the work of word detectives goes back many years.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.In the US, the first crime solved by forensic linguists happened in 1927.   A girl was kidnapped in upstate New York.  Her family, the McClure family, received a ransom note addressed to the girl’s uncle, Duncan McLure, the only member of the family to spell his name McLure.  Yet the ransom note was addressed to Duncan McLure.  Police thought it odd that the kidnapper would know that the uncle spelled his name differently from the rest of the family.  They figured he was in on the kidnapping.  Sure enough, the uncle eventually confessed.

The case of the Unabomber was solved in 1995 with the help of a forensic linguist.  A man dubbed the “Unabomber” was wanted by the FBI for a series of bombings which killed three people and injured more than a dozen over many years.  This unidentified terrorist wrote a “manifesto” explaining his beliefs and promised to stop the killings if the manifesto were published.  It was.  One reader thought he recognized the writing style in the manifesto as the same style as of his reclusive brother.  An FBI profiler, James Fitzgerald, studied the manifesto, comparing the words and writing style with other known writings by the man’s brother.  The FBI brought the linguistic findings to a federal court which granted a search warrant for the recluse’s cabin.  Information in the cabin corroborated the suspicion that the recluse was the Unabomber.   Theodore Kaczinski was arrested and imprisoned, ending a 17-year hunt.

1996 was an election year with President Bill Clinton running for a second term as President.  A new novel told the inside story of a southern Presidential contender from the perspective of a campaign insider.  Its author, “Anonymous,” rocketed to the top of the best seller list.   The hunt was on for the author’s identity.  A Vassar College English professor, Donald Foster, used the skills of a forensic linguist to narrow down the possible writers.  Foster tallied word frequency in the controversial novel.  By comparing the result with word frequency in the writings of likely authors, Foster correctly identified the anonymous author as Joe Klein, a news magazine columnist.  At first Klein denied it, but later comparisons of portions of the hand-written manuscript with other handwritten work by Klein proved him to be the author, and he eventually admitted authorship.

Another example of forensic linguistics was in finding the author of a 2013 critically acclaimed novel, The Cuckoo’s CallingThe Sunday Times of London’s art editor suspected that Robert Gilbraith, listed as the author, might be a pen name of J. K. Rowling.  The Times hired a forensic linguist, Patrick Juola, to investigate.  Juola searched by computer for data related to adjacent words, to the most commonly used words, and to the use of long and short words, among other searches.   This gave him a “fingerprint” of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.   He did the same kind of search of The Casual Vacancy, a known book by Rowling, and of the final Harry Potter book.  Then he compared that data with similar searches of books by three other female novelists.  The results showed that Rowling was highly likely to be the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  With all this evidence, Rowling confessed that she was indeed the author.

Will the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer be known soon?  If the original writing wasn’t edited much, then most likely the author will become known. The computer analysis of J. K. Rowling’s writing took only a half hour.  Plug in the right information, and a match will show.

But if the writer purposely disguised his or her usual style, the task becomes harder.  And if that disguised style was heavily edited, the task becomes harder still.  And if the author denies authorship (and many of those suspected to be the author already have),  then the author may go unknown for years, even decades, as did Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.

For forensic linguists, it’s easier to eliminate suspects than it is to prove authorship.