Verbs Are The Only Things That Matter

…okay, not quite the only things.  Nouns matter too.  We’ll give them their due later.  But verbs are the most important things.

My favorite book to teach, second to none, is Paradise Lost – not just because John Milton (praised be his name) used the English language to create one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful artworks in history, but because I love watching students react to it.  My students as a group go through five distinct stages of Paradise Lost readership, which I have christened What, Why, How, Hey, and Wow:

  • What is this?
  • Why are we reading this?
  • How the heck do I read this?
  • Hey, this actually isn’t so bad.
  • Wow, I really love this book!

Students progress through stages What and Why very quickly and naturally once they get into the groove of Milton’s Genesis fanfic, but it’s my job to minimize the time we spend on How.  So when we start Paradise Lost, we spend about a class period – more than one if necessary – learning how to to read his Latinate and allusion-drenched style.

Step one?  Find the verbs.

Here’s the opening sentence of Book I of Paradise Lost:

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,         

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill         

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

That’s one hell of an opening sentence, both in what a complicated mess it is and how goshdarned beautiful it is, but you didn’t come here to listen to me fangirl over Milton, so let’s focus on the first part.  (Sweet Christmas do I love me some John Milton though.)

Locate all the verbs.  Try it now, before you read the rest of the selection.

Here’s what you should have come up with:

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,         

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill         

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

We do this because the verbs tell us what, in the sentence, is being done.  Your elementary school teachers may have called verbs “action words,” and that’s as accurate a description as any: the verbs tell us what is happening in the sentence, and once we know what is happening, we can discern what it’s telling us.

Step two: what is doing each verb?

Go to each of the verbs and figure out which noun is performing the action.  I tell my students to circle each verb and underline each subject, but if it helps you, you can make a list too.

You should have something like this:

  • Taste brought
  • Man restore and regain
  • Sing, Muse
  • Muse didst inspire
  • Shepherd taught
  • Heavens and earth rose
  • Sion Hill delight
  • Brook flowed
  • I invoke
  • Song intends to soar
  • It [song] pursues

There’s a lot going on in that sentence, as we can see.  So our job now is to figure out which verbs (and subjects) are the most important.  Look at the excerpt and again at your subject-verb list. Is there a pair that stands out?

It’s the one where the verb comes first – the one in which the speaker is giving a command, or in this case, making a request.  The meat of the sentence is “Sing, Heavenly Muse,” which the literary among us will recognize as Milton trying his hand at a Greek-style invocation.  If you can puzzle out nothing else from the sentence, you can now determine this much: Milton’s narrator is asking the Muse to inspire his poetic voice, because he “intends to soar” and write about “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (his, you see, was the first epic poem take on the Book of Genesis).

Now, you can’t go this in-depth on every sentence in a book like Paradise Lost.  You’ll still be reading it on your deathbed, and most of Milton’s sentences are easier to parse than this one.  But when you come across an especially tough monster, you can figure out the essence of the sentence just by finding the verb.

Students can also apply this technique to their own writing.  If they’ve written a chunky paragraph for homework, or are in the middle of drafting a paper, ask them to bring in a selection and do this exercise.  Look for the verbs. Look for what does the verbs. And use those parts of the sentence to figure out what you have said, and whether you could say it better.

“Jenny was trying to hold back tears.”  The heart of that sentence right now is “Jenny was trying,” which, uh, does not convey that information in a terribly interesting fashion.  Jenny was trying? Does she just exist in a perpetual state of trying? Instead, play around with actions Jenny could be performing. “Jenny fought to hold back tears.”  “Jenny struggled to hold back tears.” “Jenny failed to hold back tears.” Save the existence for Jenny’s existential crisis later.

Engaging writers – not even great writers, just engaging writers – understand the importance of making your writing move through well-chosen verbs.  It makes the difference between writing that no one ever picks up to writing that your readers can’t put down. Verbs might not be the only things that matters, but without them, you literally and figuratively won’t go anywhere.

Gratuitous picture of me at Trinity College Dublin with my boyfriend

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