19 Jul 2013

A Verb is Not a Doing Word

A verb is a doing word, right? Kids are taught this from around age eight, forget it, learn it again. Aged nine, they forget it again. Eventually the information lodges in the brain as fact, where it solidifies like a nut.

'A verb is a doing word', like a lot of catchphrases, is catchy, naturally, and sets out the big picture but is also strangely wrong. We think of verbs as actions. 'Running', 'leaping', and 'bouncing' all look like verbs, but often aren't. Think about this phrase: 'Running, leaping, bouncing, the scantily clad bikini babes were enjoying the sun'.

In this sentence, the word 'were' is the verb. If you don't believe me, try this: 'I enjoying the sun' or 'I bouncing about in my bikini'. Nonsense. But what's so active about the word 'were'? It's not even happening now.

To Be or Not to Be?
Like the words: 'am', 'are' and 'is', 'were' is one of the most common verbs in the English language. The basic form of this verb is 'to be'. Think of: 'to be or not to be: that is the question'. Here, Hamlet is asking whether or not he should exist. There's nothing like a bit of existential angst in Denmark on the weekend, I suppose, if you've got a few family issues. To return to the original point, though, existence - being in a state of being - isn't something that we normally give much thought to, unlike Shakespeare's famous Emo teen. For most of us, existing doesn't take any effort at all. It just sort of - is.

In his mind-altering book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker points out that the verb 'to be' - ironically - doesn't exist in many world languages. If you think about it, we can understand the meaning of 'she beautiful' perfectly well. Here, the word 'is' is a piece of syntactic fluff. It doesn't add much, if anything to the meaning.

Pinker argues that verbs are a word group with far from scientific definition. 'Doing words' is a quick catch-all that doesn't catch the most common, and the most important examples. Often, verbs are 'the main event': the reason we bother to open our mouth and speak, put pen to pad or finger to keypad. They're about 'what's going on?' But at other times, they're just spanning the void between 'she _ beautiful', 'I _ at home' and 'it _ cold'. Something has to bridge the gap. It's the rules. But don't ask too many questions about what these 'verbs' are actually doing.

What Other Verbs Can you Do Lying Down?
Other non-doing verbs are 'having', 'wishing', 'sleeping', or 'boring'. But wait - 'boring' isn't even a verb. It's a gerund. For the grammar dodgers among you, this is basically a 'description of a person or thing' (similar to an adjective). We can talk about a 'boring' man, and warn others that 'he is boring', just as we'd describe 'beautiful ladies'. However boring our man may be, we'd never say, 'he boring me'. We'd probably just run away fast, like so: 'the beautiful bouncing ladies ran away from the boring man.' Here, 'bouncing' is also a describing word.

Running, Leaping, Bouncing
Troublingly, unlike the verb 'was', -ing words do look active. Doing is an -ing word, for a start. As far as physical movement goes, 'running', 'leaping' and 'bouncing' are right up there with 'pinging', 'flinging' and 'singing'.

A lot of kids trip up over this. They produce nonsense sentences like: 'The boring man, running towards them, frothing, drooling.' Blinded in a whirl of lookalike-verbs, the student sprints to the full-stop, little thinking that this sentence contains no verb at all. It should read 'The boring man was running towards them, frothing, drooling,' or, 'The boring man, running towards them frothed and drooled.' Just because it's got -ing on the end, doesn't mean it's a verb.

Grammar is drilled into us at school with rules that don't make sense. So what hope do we have? In writing, we make mistakes that we'd never make in speech. This is the clue. Verbs are tricky, even nightmarish if you get up close. Yet for all their slipperiness, Pinker points out that children as young as two use verbs intuitively, and perfectly correctly when talking.

Here lies the solution. If you've in doubt about what you've written, read it back to yourself. If it sounds wrong, it probably is. And remember: 'is' is a verb.