Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Speak Softly ... no, Whisper

I was planning to write a rather scathing takedown of this article by Constance Hale from the NYT Opinionator blog: "Make-or-break verbs." But Geoffrey Pullum beat me to it: "Not Rage So Much, But a Modicum of Fear." As I wanted to, Pullum went after Hale's complete misuse of the terms "active" and "passive." But he did leave me some points to make.

Hale writes: "Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers." If Teddy Roosevelt had followed that advice, he would have made himself ridiculous: "Whisper and carry a big stick." Beyond that, "speaking softly" is something quite different than "whispering" anyway. And finally, there's absolutely nothing wrong with adverbs anyway!

Further, Hale also has trouble with grammatical categories that Pullum does not take her down for. She uses the opening of a short story by Jo Ann Beard to talk about "static verbs": "Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake ..." Apparently, Hale sees "is" in the first sentence and "are" in the second as "static" verbs that should be used carefully so as not to make one's writing too static. But the "are" in the second sentence is part of the phrase "are fishing", and "to fish" is surely not one of her "static" verbs.

So all in all, if you want good writing advice, avoid Constance Hale. On the evidence of this article, she does not know what she is talking about.


Mark Granier said...

Good grief, the woman must have no acoustic sense; speaking softly and whispering are as different as drums and cymbals.

Andrew Shields said...

She blusteringly defends herself in the comments on Pullum's Lingua Franca post.