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The keys to keeping sentences trim, tight

Published 9:26am Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Column: Pothole Praire, by Tim Engstrom

What’s the most important word of a sentence?

Let’s whittle this down. There are eight parts of speech: noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction and interjection. However, a complete sentence must have a subject and a predicate. The subject can be as simple as a noun or a pronoun, and a predicate can be as simple as a verb.

Cari runs.

Cari, a noun, is the subject, and runs, a verb, is the predicate.

So, really, the most important word of a sentence could be the noun or the verb. And since the noun can be substituted by a pronoun (She runs), it’s easy to conclude the verb must be the most important word. After all, the verb is where the action is. It’s the reason why we opened our mouths to say something in the first place.

Hey, Mom, Michael won the 3,200-meter run at regionals.

Right? OK, that was an example of active voice.

Passive voice is where we remove the people from the beginning. Here you go:

The 3,200-meter run at regionals was won by Michael.

Or worse, passive voice can cut people from sentences altogether.

The 3,200-meter run at regional was won.

Well, duh. Somebody has to win it. We start to sound silly.

But listen to the way we all talk. So often we water down our sentences with verbs like “puts” and “does” and we neglect good verbs like “saunters” and “infers.” And we overload nouns and adjectives to save us from having to find the right verb.

He puts his car in the garage. He parks his car in the garage. He does the mail route every day. He walks the mail route every day.

We say “reached an agreement” when we could say “agreed.” We write “taken into custody” when we could write “arrested.” We say “held a meeting” when we could say “met.”

Here is what “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good Writing” by Rene J. Cappon says about verbs:

“The verb, particularly in active voice, is ringmaster of the sentence. It sets pace and movement. A peculiarity of abstract writing is an aversion to strong verbs, which are thinned out into combinations of weak verb, abstract noun and modifier.

“The refugees starved in their mountain retreat becomes the refugees experienced severe hunger in their mountain retreat. The economy rebounded slows into the economy showed a sudden, sharp improvement.”

Here is a great example:

Teachers as well as parents have much impact on students’ career choices.

This could be: Teachers as well as parents influence students’ career choices.

And: The prosecutor’s statement had an obvious effect on the jury.

This could be: The prosecutor’s statement swayed the jury.

You begin to notice that verbs reduce clutter. Every day, as speakers and writers, we are fighting clutter, vagueness and officialese. Here are four tips Cappon gives in his guide:

• Prefer the short word to the long.

• Prefer the familiar word to the fancy.

• Prefer the specific word to the abstract.

• Use no more words than necessary to make your meaning clear.

Of course, this does not mean long and unfamiliar words should never be used, he writes. It’s about finding the right word. Rhythm and cadence matter, too. So it’s not just about the right verb. Good writing is about finding the right words.

They made accommodations for the weary travelers.

They gave rooms to the weary travelers.

The council finalized its budget. (Finalized is one of those officialese words.)

The council completed its budget.

She utilized the facilities.

She used the bathroom.

The other problem is excess, excess, excess.

I’ve often said that some writers just need to warm up before they can really begin to write and in order for them to do that they need to be in the process of typing something, anything, before they will actually begin typing the words that they really want to say.

That sentence itself is a good example of the “warm-up writing” about which I am describing. Here is a pithier version:

Some writers warm up by typing extra words before they get to the point.

You never have to write “in the process of” again because a present-tense verb handles the context. “In order” is never necessary. “In order to conquer Asia …” is the same as “To conquer Asia …”. You never need to type the “or not” of “whether or not” because the word whether, by definition, implies a second option.

Hitler had to decide whether to invade Russia.

However, we often write like we speak. Some people think about what they want to say before they say it. Others want to hold their place in the conversation, so they utter words — any words — as their brain struggles to find what they meant to say.

Stop. Slow down. Think before you speak. By the same token, think before you write. Doing this alone will make anyone a better writer.

Happy first week of school, kids.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.