According to the jacket of Constance Hale’s guide to verbs Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, she blends “the wit of Bill Bryson with the practical wisdom of William Zinsser.” Critics quoted on her website declare her “Marion the Librarian on a Harley, or E. B. White on acid.” Clearly, Hale has figured out how to write about verbs so that she knocks people out in a “that’s-so-cool” way, rather than a “dose-of-Ambien” way.
Like her previous books Sin and Syntax and Wired Style, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is about grammar and language, but this one focuses on verbs—where they come from, how to use them, and why they’re important. Every chapter has a section for each of the titular action words: vex (which tackles vexing or confusing aspects of language); hex (which casts a curse on rules no one should actually follow); smash (which seeks to pulverize lazy writing and nasty habits); and smooch (which features verb usage so exemplary, you’ll want to kiss it on the mouth). Along with instruction and explanation, Hale braids in charming anecdotes, bits of linguistic history, and personal stories about growing up speaking both English and Hawaiian Pidgin.
The book is intended not only for writers who want to hone their craft, but also for anyone interested in the power and sparkle of language. Every reader will learn something; I love grammar and have spent a lot of time copyediting, both professionally and nonprofessionally, but I certainly didn’t know what ergative verbs were. And if someone had tried to teach me, they probably would have been so boring about it that I wouldn’t have listened—not so with Hale.
We spoke over Skype about Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch and the importance of playful, precise language.
The Rumpus: The book includes some very exacting rules—the difference between “may” and “might,” for example—but you also take care to include examples where it’s okay not to be grammatically perfect, like pop songs or fiction that’s aiming for a more colloquial style. How do you walk the line between being correct and being pedantic?
Constance Hale: That’s a really good question. I think you went to the heart of the book, really. One of the things that motivated me in writing the book in a kind of secondary way was this age-old—or at least four-century-old—battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Because of Sin and Syntax and a lot of the work that I’ve done, I was aware of this tension between people who walk the hypercorrect grammatical line and people who swing a little bit. Then in the small pond of language mavens or language experts, there are descriptivists and prescriptivists, or grammarians and linguists.
And I have never felt happy in either camp. As a writer, I like to know what’s grammatically correct, because I’m interested in it, but I don’t really think grammatically correct prose is always the most interesting prose to read. So I’ve always been interested in the tension in language between what’s correct and what’s incorrect, what’s standard and what’s nonstandard, and the tension between grammarians and linguists.
The central question that interests me is “What makes for better writing?” All I care about is better writing. If you answer questions with that as your central interest, sometimes you lean toward stuff that’s grammatically correct, and sometimes you don’t. What I’m trying to do in my books is not sit there and be this sort of prissy grammar diva. I’m not interested in being the Miss Manners of grammar. What I’m trying to do is give my readers a handle on language so when that reader sits down to write, some choices are at the front of that person’s mind that may not have been there in the first place, because they know more and understand more about language.
Rumpus: That reminds me a little of your interview at Nieman Storyboard about the book. You said, “I don’t care about the rules and I don’t like loosey-goosey language. All I care about is what makes great writing. I’ve noticed that if you walk down the middle, you can get pies thrown at you from both sides.” What do you think it is about language that gets people so riled up and eager to throw pies in the first place?
Hale: Well, I’m not a psychologist, but first of all, it’s so central to our humanity. What makes us different from everything else on the planet? We have language. We have the capacity to communicate and to touch each other intellectually or emotionally. It’s completely central to who we are, to our core being. And it matters a lot that we be able to communicate effectively. And yet, despite this, it isn’t taught very effectively in schools, and it isn’t taught very effectively, necessarily, within families. Your parents may make you feel kind of uptight about language if they correct you a certain way, or don’t correct you, or you might be ashamed of your parents. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t taught very well.
That’s why I think it stirs up passions in two very different and kind of paradoxical ways. On the one hand, people love great language. We all love a great Bob Dylan song, and we all respond to a politician that’s able to speak really eloquently. We respond to good advertising. And all of us have our favorite writers, and part of the reason we love them is the way they use language. So there’s that positive passion.
And then there’s this negative passion, or anxiety, which is we don’t feel that we do it right and we haven’t been taught it in a particularly good way. As a culture, Americans don’t talk about language very much. We don’t talk about language at the dinner table. In some other cultures, they do. In some other cultures, they talk about language and grammar a lot more easily. It’s an interesting paradox to me, but it’s why I think people get so riled up about it.
Rumpus: What kind of responses have you gotten from people? I hope it’s not all pie-throwing!
Hale: No! The reviews of the book have been largely enthusiastic. Most of the responses that I get, whether it be to Sin and Syntax, or Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, or the language columns I did for The New York Times, are positive. I think people feel relieved to be able to talk about language, or they enjoy reading something about language. If I can figure out a way to write about grammar or syntax in such a way that it helps people, I think that’s welcome. By and large, the response is enthusiastic.
But there are people who have built their reputations and earned their money by being experts, and they don’t agree with all that I say. And I don’t agree with all that they say, and I challenge them. I definitely upset apple carts. That’s part of what I’m doing. It’s actually among the language experts that I think it’s a little more contentious.
Rumpus: Changing tack a little, in the book, you write, “When we choose our verbs, we need to internalize a cascading set of values. First, we want to be precise, to pinpoint our exact meaning.” Precision seems to be the most important thing to you, but there are limits to how precise English can be. I want to ask you how you try to overcome those limits, but basically this question is an excuse for me to ask you if you read the article in The New Yorker about that constructed language, Ithkuil.
Hale: People have told me about that New Yorker article, and I’m not ashamed to confess that I’m months behind, because I’m working on this book right now.
Rumpus: Well, the article is about this hyper-precise language that isn’t meant to be spoken in everyday situations. It’s invented as an ideal way to discuss politics or philosophy because it sort of forces you to say what you mean without ambiguity. In a normal language like English, how do you try to overcome natural limits where you can’t be that precise?
Hale: It’s such an interesting question. We can’t forget the value of associations and the value of music and the value of sound. While I’m kind of a precision Nazi, it’s not so much that I think our language has limitations. I mean, hardly—our language is so rich. My biggest complaint is that novice writers don’t take enough care with their words.
What I see over and over again, as an editor, is writers using vague and generic words, and I, as a reader, don’t get excited about what I’m reading. For me, part of the excitement of reading is that excitement of a recreated world. The reason I’m a precision Nazi—if I even am a precision Nazi—is so many people don’t take that level of care with their words. Once you reach that threshold, there are other things that are equally important, but your average writer doesn’t reach that threshold. Even some writers that are considered pretty good, I find them disappointing on the style level. It’s not at all that our language is too limited—it’s that most of us don’t use the language the way we might.
I can give you so many examples. I do seminars, and I have a couple of exercises that I do over and over again that are fascinating to me. If you have a roomful of people, and you ask everyone in the room, which I do—I say, “Look, I don’t know any of you. I would like each of you to take three nouns to introduce yourself to me. What three nouns can you use to give me the best picture that three nouns can give?” Invariably, a very large number pick writer, which is a really stupid noun in that context, because they’re writers—that’s why I’m talking to them! I know they’re writers! That’s not giving me any information. Literally, I just spoke at the California Writer’s Club. That is a useless noun. That is a wasted noun.
Now, if they said journalist, or if they said poet, or if they said copywriter—all of those are more specific. And that’s a roomful of writers! To me, it’s such an easy illustration of the problem. I’m not blaming anybody. It’s that we speak and we write kind of on autopilot sometimes, and the default is generic words. We just don’t push ourselves to be more specific. But I don’t think we need some fancy-schmancy other language. And I certainly think that people in political science and philosophy could calm down a little bit and use more common words, and we’d all be better for it.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the idea that the Internet or other aspects of modern technology are causing a sort of decline in literacy?
Hale: I don’t agree with that premise. I think that actually they’re leading to an increase in literacy. I don’t think it’s really about literacy. I think it’s about something else. A lot of people are writing and reading a lot more, but that doesn’t mean that the number of people writing in a really intentional and intelligent way has increased, nor has the number of people reading in a really intentional and intelligent way increased.
I think probably the numbers are the same as they were a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago, a small group of people read a lot and wrote a lot and wrote quite well, and a huge number of people were illiterate. Now, probably about the same number of people write well and read well, and a lot of other people, instead of being illiterate, spend all their time texting and tweeting. It’s mistaking what’s happening at a mass level for what’s happening at the elite level.
Rumpus: Do you think that the elite level has then been affected in any way? Democratized? Is a different population making up the elite level now?
Hale: I don’t think so. There are just so many places where you can go to read mind-blowing stuff now, but you can also go to a lot of places and read not-mind-blowing stuff. There’s just a lot more people writing and publishing now, and there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not that great, but that doesn’t mean that the great stuff isn’t great. I mean, The Rumpus is doing really wonderful stuff, and it’s partly because of new technology. Always there are going to be places where people with a more literary bent gather and share their work, and then there are going to be places where things are operating at a more mass level.
Maybe we could just take Huffington Post as an example, because Huffington Post is something that’s made possible because of technology. The articles and essays there are only as good as the individual who wrote each one, because generally, they’re not edited. There’s no barrier to entry, anybody can post, and it’s the great democratizer, right? There’s some really good stuff on Huffington Post, and there’s some really bad stuff on Huffington Post. I would venture to say that Huffington Post is as good as, or better than, your average newspaper fifty years ago. If you take an average small-town paper fifty years ago, Huffington Post is probably better.
This is why I don’t really buy this argument. I think this argument comes from people saying, “Oh, texting is so idiotic, and tweeting is so idiotic.” Well, go look at telegrams. They were kind of idiotic, too. And some of them were really good, because the person sending the telegram was taking time and care to be kind of witty. Some people take time and care in their tweets and their texts to be kind of witty. But it’s like a telegram: we can’t confuse those with literature.
Rumpus: What about the concept of a sort of “literacy privilege,” the idea that people who use nonstandard or incorrect grammar are disadvantaged or even oppressed? Like if you’re maybe dyslexic or speaking in AAVE [African American Vernacular English], it’ll be harder for you to get an education or a job or just be taken seriously when you are speaking.
Hale: Well, it’s a complicated question, and again, I’m not a social historian, and I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not a linguist, but I think that our attitude toward nonstandard English is outdated and small-minded, generally. As you can probably tell from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, I really like nonstandard English. My particular odd upbringing, where I spoke both grammatically correct English when I was at home and nonstandard English or Hawaiian Creole when I was at school or playing with friends, has led me to believe that we all have the capacity to speak both. In my mind, what we all ought to be doing is kind of trying to be bilingual in English—trying to, when it’s appropriate, speak grammatically correct or elegant English. And we all ought to be able to play and have fun with language when that’s appropriate.
Like maybe when you’re talking to kids and reading kids’ books, you can drop all of that and speak in Dr. Seuss speak. Or if you grew up in the barrio or something like that, and you speak Spanglish, that’s fine. Where I think we should be putting our attention is having everybody be bi- or trilingual. That’s the ideal state. It may be that if you’re trilingual, in the old days you’d speak Latin and French and English, but maybe we should speak standard English and black English and geek-speak, you know?
The point is that we have the capacity as human beings to speak more than one language, so rather than stigmatizing one language and elevating another language, I think we should just see them as different, and colorful in different ways, and effective in different ways. I encourage everybody to have the facility to go back and forth between them. We need a good education system so that people can do both—or three or four. That’s the purpose of education. That’s what I’m trying to sort of subtly encourage in my books, but I think it’s wrongheaded to think that the path to glory is only through standard English.
I can point you to a lot of professors who are very well-educated and speak hypercorrect grammar, and they are boring as shit! No one reads their books, for good reason. If what we’re talking about is writing in a compelling way so that people read you, grammatical English is only going to get you so far.
Rumpus: People like George W. Bush got quite a bit of ink in the book, and I know we all love to make fun of him, but I really love his made-up word that you included: “scrutineering.” I was wondering if you had any favorite errors that people make that are actually kind of cool.
Hale: There aren’t so many that I like. There are definitely ones that irritate me. I hate “orientate.” And I thought you were going to mention “misunderestimate,” which is very funny, but it’s sad when the president of the country doesn’t understand that that’s not a word. For me, it’s terrific to have someone like Obama who speaks and writes well. It was really painful for me to have someone like Bush. It has nothing to do with partisanship, in my case.
I do love speakers who are great speakers, whether it be Warren Rudman on the Republican side, or George Mitchell on the Democratic side, or Obama. I love it when public figures are real masters of the language, and I find it regrettable when they’re not. It’s not really snobbery. If George Bush were using the word “scrutineering” knowledgeably, knowingly…
Rumpus: …in a way that made everyone get what he was talking about.
Hale: Groovy! Great! But it’s regrettable when public figures are just blowing it.
Rumpus: In the book, you mention “lunge,” “emerge,” and “cajole” as some favorite verbs of yours. What draws you to them, and do you have any other favorites, in English or in any other language?
Hale: It’s kind of funny about those three words, because obviously I’m very tuned into sound. There is this kind of J sound, which is sort of sexy to me. They’re all pretty simple words. They’re all one or two syllables, and that says something too about me. I like words that pack meaning and sound and surprise all in one syllable. Those words excite me.
I love the word “lurch.” I think most of us, we just say “walk,” or “stumble.” I like words that are a little bit surprising but they’re not so complicated that everybody doesn’t know what you’re saying. And the other thing is that they conjure an image. I love verbs that actually plant an image in the listener’s head or the reader’s head.
It’s not a verb, but there’s a word in Hawaiian that I very much am fascinated by, and it’s a simple word. It’s called “pono.” It’s actually in the Hawaii state motto, which is “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina I ka pono.” When I was growing up and that was the state motto, it was always translated as “righteousness”: “the life of the land will be perpetuated in righteousness.” And that seemed very biblical and Christian and kind of weird to me. But the more I came to know Hawaiian, the more I learned that that’s not really the right translation for “pono.”
Going back to your question about precision, I’m always intrigued when there’s a word in another language that can’t really be translated into English without a lot of explanation. It makes you wonder whether there’s something we’re not experiencing. In the case of that word in Hawaiian, it makes me think about moral correctness or righteousness. It’s interesting to me that we can’t translate that without these heavy Christian-laden words: “righteousness” and “morally correct.” Actually, it just means “do the right thing.” It means, like, in the situation that you’re in, you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes words in another language that you can’t translate call your attention to ideas that we maybe rank less important. And this idea that in Hawaii, there’s this conscientiousness about other people and about the environment and your place in the world, that you always ought to be doing the right thing by the people and things around you. We don’t have a word for that in English.