Hale verbs well met

Paying close attention to verbs can enliven writing. Writer and editor Constance Hale explains the vex, hex, smash and smooch of language’s punchiest words.
By Elfrieda Abbe | Published: December 20, 2012


Connie_Hale1Constance Hale stood at the front of a long narrow hotel meeting room, holding an audience in her sway as she preached the gospel of subjects and predicates. A small, energetic woman with an expressive face framed by dark curls, she was at the San Francisco Writers Conference to help writers of all levels add panache to their prose with descriptive nouns and dynamic verbs.

Sitting in her workshop, I was struck by how easily she engaged attendees in a lively discussion about grammar. No schoolmarmish tsk, tsker waiting to scold us for our mistakes, she turned what could have been a dry lecture into a playful word game.

Since she burst onto the grammar stage in 1997 with Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, Hale has been coaching, teaching, prodding and pushing writing students to break new ground. With her first book, she and fellow Wired editor Jessie Scanlon introduced readers to the hyper-abbreviated, punchy, colloquial language of the Web.

In a credo that established her renegade credentials, she encouraged writers and editors: “Welcome inconsistency, especially in the interest of voice and cadence. Treat the institutions and players in your world with a dose of irreverence. Play with grammar and syntax, appreciate unruliness.”

Thereafter, the phrase “E.B. White on acid” seemed permanently attached to Hale’s name. She carried the banner of bold and playful writing again in 1999 with Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. In it, she challenges rigid rules of grammar, rules that only skim the surface of what language can do.

In her latest book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, she urges readers to dive deeper into the well. She packs this 376-page reference guide and user’s manual, her most ambitious project to date, with history, linguistics, grammar, writing exercises and instruction. Equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject, Hale immerses readers in tenses, moods, voices, oddities, irregularities and points of view.

Her passion for the English language with all its complexities, infinite variety and puzzling inconsistencies fuels and fires her teaching and writing. But Hale, who at various times has worked as a copy editor, editor, reporter and feature writer for magazines, newspapers and book publishers, eschews the notion that she’s a grammarian.

“I’m often called a grammarian,” she told me during a phone interview soon after her verb book came out. “It’s frustrating because what I really care about the most is the way language is part of our soul.” The motivation driving her books is “to connect people with that love of language, words and meaning. That’s goal number one. Goal number two is to help them to write better.”

She spoke from her home studio in Oakland, Calif., a space she shares with her grandmother’s baby grand piano and a guest bed. She writes at the desk lovingly built from recovered Douglas fir by her husband Bruce Lowell Bigelow, a cabinetmaker. It’s an intimate space with lots of photographs of her family and her birthplace, Hawaii. “It’s like a nest, a very cozy, warm space,” said Hale.

We talked about her new book, her approach to grammar, the building blocks of good writing and the challenging tensions between making art and making a living. She spoke in lyrical and rhythmic tones about the rich beauty of language and shifted to rapid-fire intensity when the conversation went into pronouncements about grammar.

“I don’t subscribe, I don’t agree, I have my own way of doing things,” she said. “What is important to me is how can we take from traditions and formulate a set of principles that are relevant to writing, that will make us better writers. Don’t ignore grammar, don’t ignore linguistics but keep the primary focus on powerful communication.”

This way of thinking sometimes gets her into trouble. She stumbled into a hornet’s nest of controversy with a column she wrote last year for the New York Times online Opinionator section.

Hale made what she thought was a benign observation that the terms active and passiveverbs are confusing and suggested substituting them with dynamic and static. Grammarians may not have liked her idea, but linguists, who adhere to two categories of verbs, transitiveand intransitive, were incensed by it.

“I was astounded at the vitriol, negativity and ugliness that were vented at me,” she said. “I’m basically trying to give everyone a somewhat new language hat can make distinctions crisper.”

While she didn’t care for the tone of the discourse, she was gratified by the passion expressed. “People really care,” she said. “People love writing, people love reading, people love language. It’s so central to who we are as human beings.”

Hale traces her passion for language back to her bilingual childhood on the Hawaiian island Oahu.

“We spoke a very refined, beautiful English at home,” she said. Her parents were well educated. The story goes that her mother, a graduate of Smith College, was fluent in so many languages the CIA wanted to recruit her for decoding. Her father, an Army officer and graduate of West Point, was a raconteur who entertained family and guests with his stories at the dinner table. They were “avid readers and loved the word,” she said.

Outside the home, Hale spoke Hawaiian creole or pidgin English – a  “bawdy, funny, crazy language that mixes Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese words.” Although she was too young to articulate it, she began to wonder why jokes told in pidgin were funnier than jokes told in Standard English, and why her mother and others looked askance at her when she spoke in this fun dialect.

“If you grew up ‘Haole’ [white] in Hawaii, being fluent in pidgin was the best way to telegraph you were a ‘tita’ or local girl,” she said. “The language had this importance. It was a badge that I belonged while at the same time it was looked down upon.” Even then, she was curious about those kinds of paradoxes in language.

Much to her horror, when Hale headed off to Honolulu’s Punahu School, the same school President Barack Obama attended, her mother insisted she take Latin. “I was a scholarship student at this fancy school, coming from Waialua, this little sugar plantation town, and I already felt like a country bumpkin,” she said. “I felt like I was the most uncool 12-year old on the entire island.”  Still, in an early display of Hale’s self-described type-A personality, despite her dislike of the classic language, she won the school’s Latin prize. She still has the Roman coin to show for it. Like her mother, she was blessed with a good ear for language and went on to speak French fluently.

Although Hale, who graduated cum laude from Princeton University and earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, doesn’t characterize herself as a rebel, she acknowledges a dichotomy between her achiever side and her creative side. The split is another version of the pidgin and proper English duality of her childhood and between her parents, who divorced when she was 8 and lived nearly oppositional lifestyles.

At her mother’s humble house on the beach ‒ “a shack, really” ‒ life was casual and fun. At her father’s house on the mainland, dinner table conversation was more intellectual, more argumentative.

It wasn’t until many years and thousands of miles later that she figured out how to put these parts of her world together in a way that made sense. In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, she describes telling her English professor at Princeton a “ribald version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in pidgin.” To her surprise, this august editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature loved it. “In that moment I saw that the academy can meet the street, and that great writing is a lot more than erudition,” she writes.

From then on she was fascinated with the relationship between formal English and informal, edgier English that is considered wrong but is livelier. “That’s at the heart of my three language books and everything I do as a writer,” said Hale. “The way I play with language came from that.”

After Sin and Syntax, Hale thought she had said all she had to say about grammar, but then she had this “niggling” feeling that a lot more needed to be said about that fantastic part of speech that powers sentences, the verb.

People asked her: What’s the one thing I can do to change my writing the most quickly? Aside from telling them to read and write more, Hale advised: “Look at your verbs.”

“When you’re stopping to think about what word you’re using, and looking for a better word, your writing becomes more precise, more dramatic or visual,” said Hale. “And if you are really focusing on the verb, you’re focusing on the subject-verb relationship.”

People were also “confused about tense … and had very little sense of the choices when it comes to mood,” she said. Then there were participles and gerunds. “You say these words and people just cringe.”

So when W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., asked for another language book, the topic she put forward was verbs.

She could have written another grammar guide about usage along the lines of Sin and Syntax, but here was a topic with a breadth and depth that matched her love of research, insatiable curiosity and inexhaustible interest in language, a topic so vast that she found more than 7,000 books at Harvard University’s Widener Library with the word verb in the title.

The books at Widener were mostly antiquated and nerdy. She wanted to write something that contemporary readers could relate to, something that went beyond grammar. She wanted to leave no question about verbs unanswered, including a “geeky” discussion of factitive, causative and ergative verbs.

If you’re interested in the evolution of language, you might like to know that in 1693, poet and critic John Dryden called English “barbarous.” With its Latin, Celtic, Scottish, Anglo-Saxon, German, French and Scandinavian influences, unruly English vexed many a learned man. Then in 1762, Londoner Robert Lowth tried to tame the beast with A Short Introduction to English Grammar. By that time, however, the language had already given us a rich stew of words.

If you’re a collector of verbal oddities, you can enjoy a list of contronyms, words that mean a thing and its opposite. Hales writes: “Cleve can suggest ‘stick together, but it also can suggest ‘cut apart.’” Or, you may turn to the appendix of misused and confused words to remind yourself of the difference between rack and wreck. In-depth discussions follow of the versatile tenses, participles and gerunds that give writing more depth and substance.

Internally, the chapters are organized around sections named for the four words in the title. Vex considers parts of English that puzzle and confuse. Hex challenges rules handed down through the ages without questioning, such as the dictum to avoid passive voice. Smash calls out bad writing. Smooch appreciates “verbal dexterity.”

The goal, she writes in the introduction, is not “hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose” and tools to make “sentences that are enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango.”

While the book is designed for writers and teachers, it also helped Hale shore up her convictions and double-down on questioning conventional ways of using language.

“There are a lot of people who tell you that you should write short sentences and use small words,” she said. “Use plain English. I don’t believe that. I had a hard time working in newspapers because I often thought I was being subjected to the lowest-common-denominator thinking. I rebelled against a lot of conventions, and yet, there’s this sense thatthey are right and you are wrong.”

Her research revealed a unifying idea about language for the book: “It’s so flexible and supple. Why on earth would we only use Anglo-Saxon words? What a crazy idea. Why would we trim our sails? That’s what I want to share with the readers. I want them to understand language in a new way so they have confidence in what they are doing.”

Throughout school and in our work, we are told to play it safe more times than not. Hale played it safe, too: She went to good schools, got good grades, dreamed of becoming a writer. But she suffered from self-doubt in her 20s. In her personal essay Cutouts, which appeared in Best Travel Writing 2006, she writes about her friendship with a painter who lived an unconventional life in Italy and was uncompromisingly true to his art. He had the “nerve to live his ideas,” she writes. When I asked what his example meant to her, she was silent for a moment, then said, “I get goose bumps thinking about that.”

It was then that Hale first realized that to be an artist, to live your art, you have “to stand outside of things, think differently, both creatively in your work but also in your life.” For her, that meant getting married later in life, not having children because the writing life can be hard financially and practically on family life. Her preference was to carve a rewarding career from writing about language, writing, culture, history and travel.

In writing circles, she may be best known for her books on language, but Hale has also written articles and essays for The Atlantic, National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Smithsonian and Honolulu magazines.

While she has worn the editor’s hat many times, Hale identifies as a writer ‒ her business card uses the word “scribe.” “I often say I’m a writer trained as a journalist, and that I’ve been a journalist for 25 years,” she said. Because she has been in the trenches, her teaching resonates with her students.

“There are teachers who write, and writers who teach, but Connie stands out as someone who can practice and preach with equal authority,” says Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. Clark met Hale when he was a speaker at the Harvard University Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, which she chaired in 2008 and 2009.

One of the hardest things for writers, Hale says, is balancing practical or career considerations with artistic or creative ones. “I can sit in my studio and write what I’m passionate about forever and forever,” she said, “but if it’s not going to get published, I’m not going to be happy. I’m not a professional ‘journaler.’ I want to communicate with an audience. You make compromises to get your stuff in front of a reader.”

Taped on a cabinet in her office is her mantra, taken from the title of an art exhibit she saw years ago: “Total risk, freedom, discipline.”

“These four words say more about my daily life as a writer than the empty term ‘process’ can begin to suggest,” she said.

For journalistic writing, she heads to The Grotto, a writing community in San Francisco with office spaces for writers. “It’s terrific to get that blast of city energy,” she said. “I go online, check email, read the newspaper or start doing interviews or research. I have all my language and narrative journalism books there. I’m in a more extroverted mode all day long.” Hale gets jazzed on the creative energy of the place.

Essay writing and personal writing is something else. “The part of me that initially started as a short story writer is satisfied by this kind of writing. I’m really trying to get at an emotional truth as much as trying to get a factual truth.”

On those days, Hale reads something in bed, usually something literary that has to do with what she’s working on. Then she puts on her robe, gets a cup of tea and nestles in her studio with her library of fiction and poetry. She doesn’t read email or the newspaper. “I stay in the frame of mind I wake up in,” she said. “I’m still a bit in my dreams. I’m more in my imagination, my memory. I can stay in this place where I’m connected to my subconscious. I’m very much in solitude and holding the world at bay.”

Whatever kind of writing she’s doing, she often calls upon the drama, pacing and rhythm she learned in dance and theater classes. She learned to hula when she was 4-years old.

“Hula comes alive when the hula dancer really understands the words, and the meaning of the words comes out through her hands, through her feet, through her face, through her smile, through her eyes,” she said. “This expressiveness is very important in writing. Even though I’m not a fiction writer or poet, artistic expression is important to me. Dance makes me more aware that I can bring that to my writing.”