Friday, March 30, 2018

Verbs and Excess Words

Inflection is emphasis, tone, rhythm, and lyricism of how a sentence is said. When speaking orally, we naturally tell people what we’re saying through how we say it. A listener can understand what we’re saying while we’re speaking.

But a reader has to speculate about how we are saying something then use that to figure out what we’re saying. If they are wrong, and they’ve emphasized it wrong, the sentence might have its meaning changed, or not make any sense to them at all.

Take, for instance, “I never said she stole my money.”

I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.”

“I never said she stole my money.

Each sentence has a completely different meaning. And, in this case, I could just italicize the word to tell the reader how I wanted them to say each one, so I had some control over the important inflection. However, italics tells the reader to really emphasize what they’re reading and can’t be used lightly without sounding silly. At best, it’ll sound like the speaker is a drama queen.

What’s important to note for the writer is that the audience always assumes that the verb is the most important part of the sentence, or, as in the case above, the negative verb.

Most will read, “I never said she stole my money,” as “That didn’t happen.” “I never said it, and she didn’t do it.”

You can control this assumption by changing context.

“You just going around telling everyone Jenny took your money?”

“I never said she stole my money. Jimmy’s the blabbermouth here.”

Readers can read inflection in hindsight, but it’s a dangerous business. If they can immediately readjust, they won’t even notice, but if they have to go back and reread, there’s a chance they’ll feel your writing is confusing or dense.

People first prioritize negatives.

“Don’t you dare give me that look.”

“I’m not a whore.”

“He won’t like it.”

The reader assumes the sentence’s point is about what will not happen.

In most sentences though, in which there is no negation, readers prioritize verbs, especially over the nouns. They assume emphasis on the action, and that that action is the reason for the sentence’s existence. If you want to draw attention to the noun, you remove the verb from the sentence:

“There was a chair.”

“Was,” of course, is a verb, but it is a weak verb used to make the important aspect either the adjective (which takes precedent over the noun if it exists) or the noun.

“The chair was blue.”

In most cases, adjectives and adverbs of secondary importance.

“The tall man walked in the door,” focuses on that a man walked in the door—who happened to be tall. “Tall” is a peripheral, extra piece of information tacked on. In “He was tall,” it tells the reader his height is important.

Weak or common verbs draw attention to other parts of the sentence. A basic verb with any sort of adverb will put the emphasis on that adverb. If you have a repetitive sentence structure, or use adverbs constantly, it will make the rhythm of the work distracting because it fights the reader’s usual assumption.

Dictating images with action instead of adverbs or adjectives also saves time and makes a sentence more meaty. Usually, you want to save single-motive sentences for the important aspects.

If I say, “He slammed his hand down on the table, making the pocket-watch bounce,” I’ve just told you there’s a pocket-watch on the table, but not necessarily because the pocket watch is important. It might be just that I’m describing the force he used. The reader is more likely to ignore it.

If I say, “There was a pocket-watch on the table,” the audience will probably realize the pocket-watch is important. Maybe you want them to, and it’s a great tool to do so. But, if every sentence so far has a singular point, it’s not only likely that the story revealing information too slowly, but also you can’t imply importance by singular points anymore.

The verb is the most powerful part of your sentence. It usually has assumed emphasis, and you can toy with implied importance by how you use your verbs.

After the verb, the adverb, and the adjectives, it is often the preposition that takes focus. A weak verb without an adverb in a sentence with a prepositional phrase will become about that prepositional phrase.

“He stood in the hot sun.”

“In” is the actual preposition, “in the hot sun,” is the prepositional phrase. The point of the sentence focuses on the phrase itself, in this case, the adjective: hot. Because “stood” is such a banal word, it seems the sentence is about how hot it is.

Most prepositional phrases are superfluous by technical definition, but are included for emphasis. In the case of, “He stood in the hot sun,” it can be assumed that the preposition is the important part, easily replaced by, “The sun was hot,” and not lost much in the way of information. So this is an exception.

But you often will have phrases that the preposition says something assumed, or even just doesn’t add anything:

“The paint on the wall peeled.”

“He thought about it.”

“On the wall” is the prepositional phrase. Technically, the paint could be anywhere, but it’s safe to assume that if the reader knows the character is in a room, the first place he’ll assume “paint” is would be the wall. The preposition would only be needed if it wasn’t in the first expected place, like the ceiling. In this case, “The paint peeled,” could be a perfectly adequate sentence if just for information’s sake.

“He thought about it,” is a prime example of a sentence enhanced by extra, if unnecessary words. “He thought,” and “He thought about it,” mean exactly the same thing. However, readers will always react funny to the flat sentence, “He thought.”

Believe me, I’ve tried it. And I’ve left it. Because that’s the kind of writer I am.

No one speaks like that, so you keep the preposition purely for the purpose of cadence, not technical meaning. This will be a common issue; even though a sentence might not need a word to convey information, it is needed to sound right—or even just sound the way the author wants.

Leaving in “excess” words is as much about rhythm and inflection as it is about duration of moment. If you want to control the length of time a visual takes, you want to control the length of your sentence:

“He punched,” is very different visually from, “Without thinking, Jonathan raised his arm, fist balled, and swung a hard, heavy punch, the hardest he’s ever thrown.”

One is a quick, immediate action. The other takes longer for even the characters, almost as though time slowed down. Each are different, and each are useful in the right situation. This “duration” is also affected by number of syllables and “-ing” words; shorter syllables like “hit,” are faster than longer words like, “smacked.” “-Ing” words feel slower, less abrupt. “She accepted his drink, grabbing it,” versus, “She accepted and grabbed it.” “Grabbing” in the first feels like a just slightly softer touch, “grabbed” feeling harsher. Of course, if you really want a difference, you might say, “take,” to make her more polite.

Mostly “extra” words draw a lot of attention to themselves because usually, if you’re including them, it’s important. This is why you should never just start deleting words simply because people tell you to; every time you included an “excess” word, it had a purpose. (Just keep in mind that that purpose may have very well been due to stalling or looking formal.)

For instance:

“He stood out in the hot sun,” versus, “He stood in the hot sun.”

Now they might look like the same sentence, and the difference is so subtle, it’s entirely possible that the author honestly doesn’t care about the slight change. But there is a difference.

“Out” is the focus of the sentence.

“He stood out in the hot sun,” makes us think about where the man is, not the heat of the sun. The sun becomes the peripheral information. He is out in the open, nothing around. No shade, no buildings. How far from these things, we don’t know, but he’s exposed.

Note, that if it had a strong verb, like “stumbled,” the strong verb would take precedent like they normally do, but then the extra preposition of “out” would still supersede “in the hot sun,” even though adjectives are usually prioritized over prepositions.

“He stumbled out into the hot sun,” would focus on the image of him stumbling, yes, but “out” would still make us envision the location—where he is stumbling.

Excess words can trip readers up because they take emphasis; too many extra and your sentence loses a natural rhythm.

This brings me to my final point about inflection, which is that “dense” writing has more to do with misappropriated emphasis than it does big words.

Because we naturally understand the action as the priority, then the descriptions, then the where, then the what and assume emphasis based on those parts of speech, readers most often get confused when the verb, noun, adjective or adverb is confused.

There are a lot of words that can fall into more than one category: evil, influence, open, and anal for starters.

“Evil” can be a noun or an adjective:

“Evil floods the world.”

“The evil dog bit the mailman.”

Influence can be a noun or a verb.

“His influence made me do it.”

“He influenced me to do it.”

Open can be an adjective or a verb.

“He is an open person.”

“He opened the door.”

Anal can be an adjective or a verb.

“I am so anal that I’m not going to allow myself to explain how anal can be an action.”

When you have a sentence and a person first assumes something is a certain part of speech and then the next word is really that part of speech, it can lead to confusion. So, she thinks it’s a noun, but really the next word is the noun of the sentence, and she has to start over.

“The evil influence of Dracula takes over Europe!”

If she thinks “evil” is a noun on a first impression, her mental inflection is going to read it as a noun.

Read, “The evil influence of Dracula…” versus “The evil influences Dracula,” and you can hear how you say evil and influence differently, and why missing it might be jarring.

Once she gets to ‘influence,’ she’s going to realize her inflection is wrong and have to start over. The problem can be exacerbated if she’s (like many readers) not a careful reader and sees, “The evil influences of Dracula takes over Europe!”

The sentence will make sense all the way up to “takes.” In order to avoid starting over, it’s likely she’ll spend some time on “takes” to see if it’s not supposed to be “take.” Or, she will read it as she expects and not realize that she misinterpreted it. In this case, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t really change the meaning of the sentence, but we’ve all had times where we read something wrong and didn’t find out until several pages later that something is off.

This problem is worse for fantasy and science-fiction writers who are constantly making up words.

“The god machine drilled through the crust.”

The reader might read “god” as a noun when really it’s functioning as an adjective. Hopefully, a temporary mishap like this won’t cause a problem, but if it’s combined with long, complex sentences, a bunch of new terms, and large words (as it was in the story that I took this line from), the reader can feel overwhelmed.

It’s useful to utilize hyphens and capitalization whenever you have the opportunity for made-up terms, especially those that are combinations of already existing words. Capitalization will tell readers what is the whole noun—The Surveying Squadron from Tempora—or new terminology—god-machine—which can help them not get confused as to what’s supposed be the real action from the action inside a noun.

Writing is an interesting and complex new way of looking at words. Not all authors (few I'd say) understand the minutiae of why readers are affected by the written word the way they are; they just learn naturally through trial and error and apply it to their gut instincts. Regardless, it's somewhat fascinating to understand the assumptions we make as readers, and it can help the writer figure out why his sentence didn't land.

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