Monthly Archives: December 2018

Expanded Verb Structures | Liar, Liar

Pennebaker quote re: expanded verb structures

Our barrier object series continues with expanded verb structures. These come in a variety of forms.

A Rundown of Verb Features

In the simplest of sentences, the verb expresses only Tense, past or present.

  • John keeps a book on his nightstand; he reads before bedtime.
  • Mary celebrated her birthday all month long, and she partied hard.
  • Sam likes potatoes.

In English, future tense requires addition of a modal, will.

  • She will meet you at the restaurant.

The verb structure expands to accommodate this: “meet” loses its inflection and “will” assumes the tense feature.

As more verb features add into the mix, the structure expands further. Auxiliary verbs be and have assist in Aspect and Voice, and auxiliary do assumes the tense feature for negatives, emphatics, and the interrogative Mood.

  • John is keeping a book on his nightstand; he has read it before bedtime.
  • The book is opened each night.
  • Mary did celebrate her birthday all month long. She didn’t party too hard, though.
  • Does Sam like potatoes?

Modals (AKA ” discrepancies”) express conditional or hypothetical attitudes towards the words spoken.

  • She might meet you at the restaurant. (Or she might not, idk.)
  • She can meet you at the restaurant. (Don’t expect to meet her elsewhere, dude.)
  • She should meet you at the restaurant. (But who knows whether she actually will.)
  • Etc.

Each of these additions causes a subtle shift in meaning for the verb phrase as a whole. Whichever verb—modal, auxiliary, or main—appears at the front of the structure carries that essential Tense feature.

This tense-bearing verb, then, is the most important verb in any sentence, structure-wise. But semantics-wise, the main verb always carries that torch. And the farther apart they are, the more diluted that main verb becomes.

Expanded Verb Structures as Barriers

If a sentence requires additional nuances, these expanded verb structures serve a necessary purpose. However, especially in patterns of deception, extra nuances slip in unnecessarily, and the structure carries more baggage than needed.

Compare the following two sentences:

  1. John was glaring at Mary.
  2. John glared at Mary.

Both give the reader the same semantic information, but Sentence #2 is more efficient about it. Sentence #1 has added a progressive aspect, even though there’s no other event occurring at the same time as John’s glare. The aspect, then, is gratuitous.

A single three-letter word might not be much for a reader to gloss over, but when it becomes a pattern of usage, that gloss becomes a game of leapfrog. This goes for extra modals as well as auxiliaries. Any string of function words beyond the main verb (the semantic powerhouse) merits scrutiny.

For example:

  • ­Mary frowned at this disclosure, any retort she might have made having been stifled.

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Here we have 6 (six!) verbs in a row. They are two separate verb phrases, (she) might have made and having been stifled, both of which modify “retort.” Only the past participle stifled carries distinct concrete meaning, while everything else adds nuance.

And we can reduce the whole ungainly string into a single modifier and that past participle:

  • Mary frowned, her possible retorts stifled at this disclosure.

This revision gives the exact same semantic information to the reader, but without so much structure to stumble through.

Weak Verbs

In addition to unnecessary verb features, this barrier object occurs in a crop of semantically weak verbs. These are verbs that combine with other verbs or else with nouns that point to an event to create their overall meaning. For example:

  • ­find oneself [verb]-ing, begin [verb]-ing, start [verb]-ing, continue [verb]-ing
  • tend to [verb], want to [verb], like to [verb], need to [verb]
  • ­make a(n) X [where X = the noun form of a verb]
    • E.g., make a decision, make a reply, make an escape, make a choice
  • take a(n) X [where X = the noun form of a verb]
    • E.g., take a step, take a seat, take a shower, take a bite

An expanded verb of this ilk has inefficiency built into its structure.

Participles to Main Verbs

The [verb]-ing participles of the first bullet are where we find the more important semantics of the phrase. The reflexive nature of find oneself [verb]-ing creates distance between the subject and the action, as though a character isn’t wholly in control of themselves.

In the case of beginstart, and continue, unless the action gets interrupted, there’s no need to specify that it begins or continues, because that’s already implied in context. Compare,

  • He began shouting at the crowd.
  • He shouted at the crowd.

Both say the same thing, but the second is more direct. However, if we add an interruption, the “began [verb]-ing” structure becomes justified.

  • He began shouting at the crowd, but his wife clamped her hand across his mouth.

Aspects happen in concordance with another event. On their own, they become expendable.

Infinitive Strings

As with strings of modals and auxiliaries, weak verbs that take infinitives as their complements can stack up like a conga line.

  • My boss tends to want to get to work early.

Add in any aspects or moods, and this could easily spiral out of control.

(But confession: I’ve made a game out of stringing lots of verbs together in a plausible sentence. So far my longest string is nine: “She might have been being coerced to pretend to try to like to dance.” Once you hit the main verb, it’s over, haha.)

In these cases, outright revision is the best bet to eliminate the string, unless you really, truly need it.

  • My boss comes to work early if she can.

It’s not semantically exact, but it’s close enough that the same sense remains.

Light Verbs

Of particular note in our above list of weak verb examples, make and take fall into the category of light verbs, along with do, have, and give. If you look them up in the dictionary, their entries can span over multiple pages, because their meanings have diluted to a bland meh that requires modifiers. They are the unseasoned starches of the language.

And why would we purposefully use them? In many cases, these expanded verb structures have no different meaning than their simpler counterparts. If you make a decision, you decide; similarly, to make an escape = to escape, to take a seat = to sit, to take a bite = to bite, and so forth.

The primary difference lies in structure, not in semantics. Weak verb phrases say very little in a lot of words. Revising for more precise language simplifies these structures, which allows the reader to access the story without wading through that slew of extra verbiage.

The Litmus Test

When evaluating verb phrases, consider the following two questions:

  1. Does my tense-bearing verb communicate the main action of the sentence?
  2. If not, is there a good reason why?

Don’t bog down the reader with too much structure. Our brains actively look for the verb in the sentence, so keep it efficient.

Tl;dr, simple tenses are better; save the expanded verb structures for when they’re necessary.

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Filter Verbs | Liar, Liar

The next offender in our sequence of barrier objects is a big one: filter verbs.

Filter Verbs Defined

  1. She felt the cold November wind wafting through the window.
  2. He knew his horse would find the way.
  3. She watched him approach.

What do all of these sentences have in common? They all use filter verbs.

You may or may not have heard the term before. Some people call them “tell” verbs (as opposed to “show” verbs, from the infamous writer’s adage, “Show, don’t tell”). Some refer to them as sensory verbs. They appear when the focal character filters the narrative through their lens of experience, a rhetorical bottleneck between the reader and the action.

The category of filter verbs does include your standard sensory verbs, but also anything that happens inside a character’s head. And inevitably, any prescriptive discussion of these offenders produces a list of words to avoid.

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Filter Verbs word art

I don’t like these lists. They’re never all-inclusive (because they can’t be), and they fail to address the underlying issue. Writers eliminate one filter only to replace it with another, because it’s not a word problem at all but a structural one.

So here’s the skinny on identifying filter verbs:

It is a filter verb if the character is making an observation instead of acting or being acted upon.

In linguistics, we call these “verbs that assign an experiencer argument to their subject.” And really, there’s nothing structurally wrong with them. The issue lies in our layers of dialogue. Your reader is supposed to be the experiencer. Filter verbs make them experience events second-hand instead of immersing them in the story.

The “experiencing” character becomes the barrier.

The Syntax of Filter Verbs

Filters form a barrier in sentence structure itself. To illustrate this, take a look at the x-bar diagram for Sentence #3 from our list of examples above.

Filter verbs in a minimalist syntax tree

According to minimalist syntax, everything with concrete meaning starts in the Verb Phrase (VP), and certain elements take on grammar by moving up into the Tense Phrase (TP).

(C’mon. Deglaze your eyes.)

Now imagine yourself standing at the head of that sentence, by the letters TP in the picture. To get to the lexical meat, the action, you have to wade through the filter first.

2 Relevant Principles of Syntax:

  1. The beginning of a sentence carries the most rhetorical weight.
  2. Our brains are hard-wired to look for the tense-bearing verb. In a sentence with more than one verb, the main tense-bearing verb gets our focus. (It’s categorized as most important, in other words.)

Filter verbs work against us on both of these principles. Is a character “watching” more important than a character “approaching”? The inclusion of such implies that it is.

(But spoiler alert: it’s not.)

Writers instinctively filter as a way to pull readers into their characters’ heads, but ironically, it creates distance instead. Essentially, a reader for Sentence #3 is watching someone watch someone else. If we swap the verb structures, we can see exactly how superfluous the filter is:

  • He approached while she watched.
  • His horse would find the way, he knew.
  • The cold November wind wafted through the window; she felt it.

And suddenly, no one cares about the observer. Why? Because any importance their observation carried was tied to sentence position, not to a greater semantic or pragmatic message.

Ditching the Filter

If you write in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited Omniscient, your character’s observations are built into the point of view. We know they see something because if they didn’t see it, it wouldn’t show up in the narration of events.

Filters, then, become redundant. Their elimination can tighten prose and shift focus to the more interesting action of the story. You can rewrite passages to eliminate filters, but removal of this barrier doesn’t have to be difficult.

Often, a more active verb lurks beyond the filter.

Example #1

  • ­The man felt a strange knot twisting his insides, warning him to flee.

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Here we have our filter with a more engaging participle in its compliment. If we ditch the filter, “twisting” gets elevated to the finite verb position:

  • A strange knot twisted the man’s insides, warning him to flee.

And suddenly, that knot is twisting your insides too. A simple shift in tense-bearing verbs allows the reader to experience such action directly instead of getting a watered-down account.

Example #2

  • She saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

Here the filter is the only verb (because “blurred” serves as an adjective). However, we do have indirect action packed into the noun, “flex.” So, the un-filtered version becomes

  • Wings flexed along its blurred back.

Which is far more dynamic than its original incarnation.

Some filters point to a different grammatical mood in their unfiltered form.

Example #3

  • ­She thought she saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

The combined filters in “she thought she saw” create an uncertainty, and that points to the Interrogative Mood. Un-filtered, this example turns into a question:

  • ­Was that a flex of wings along its blurred back?

Was it? We don’t know. The reader gets to wonder alongside the focal character, drawing out tension in the scene.

Removing filters leads to a more immersive reading experience because it engages the reader directly with the action. They see and feel and experience alongside characters instead of processing events second-hand.

When Filtering Is Good

As with all our barrier objects, filter verbs function best when they have a witting purpose. They’re excellent in dialogue, when one character needs to communicate experiences to another. In narration, they allow moments of introspection, often necessary in character development and plot progression.

They allow, too, distance. There may come occasions in your story where you want to push your reader back a step. Filters very calmly, very cleanly accomplish this feat.

Particularly when used with restraint.

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