He grinned.

February 2, 2014 § 6 Comments

English is a well-upholstered language.

A Harvard/Google study put the number of distinct words in the language at 1,022,000 with an annual growth rate of 8,500 words.

Resourceful and robust, English equips the writer with muscular verbs, subtly shaded adjectives, not to mention adverbs (which should only be used in a pinch).

Consider the verb “to walk.” Not much color there, no vivid mental picture, just a workman like verb for putting one foot in front of the other.

But “walk” has about sixty synonyms, each with a different shade of meaning: strut, limp, sashay, amble, lumber, march, pace, plod, meander, stride, stagger.

When a character needs to put one foot in front of the other the writer can one-stop-shop the verb shelf and find a single word that conveys what the character looks like in motion.

Still, this sprawl of a language has inexplicable thin spots.

Here’s one.

Joe smiled. To smile is pretty generic. It carries no subtle connotations. Joe is happy, yes, but what else? Without bolstering that verb with an adjective or adverb, all we know is that Joe bent his lips in an upward direction.

But unlike walking, smiling sits nearly alone on the shelf.

Here’s my alternative.

Joe grinned.

Now, grinning does have connotations.

It is raffish, playful, sometimes teasing.

No one grins when the pleasure is profound. Grinning is the candy bar of smiles.

Aside from smiling and grinning, there is nothing much to choose from (I do not count smirk which could be considered a self-satisfied, derisive smile and happens to be my least favorite word in the English language).

Absent alternate verbs, the writer has to describe Joe’s smile.

Joe smiled shyly.

Joe wore a wicked smile.

Creators of those 8,500 new words a year? I challenge you to quit concentrating on words to label the experiences of digital life and things that can be bought in a store, and supply Joe and me with verbs that would allow Joe to smile ruefully, eagerly, with detachment, ecstatically, resignedly…I figure another twenty or thirty verbs would do the trick.

Another inexplicable thin spot is the activity of perceiving something visually. “To look” or “to see” have the same bland generic feel as “to walk,” but alternate verbs are few.

“Glance” is brief. “Watch” adds an element of duration. “Study” adds interest to the act of looking, but come on, we look at things all day long, and so do our characters.

And a novelty alternative like “peruse” doesn’t do much for a writer. As I see it, you can’t peruse anything that doesn’t have dust on it. You peruse an old book or an antique store. You do not peruse a pair of jeans or a cute guy.

Verbs are the building blocks of language and perhaps, unless the activity itself is new, like “to text” we can’t add a verb with any grace—but I think about it as I write and as I edit.

Thinking about language is, in itself, an odd activity. Language is like the air we breathe. We take it for granted and use it unconsciously.

But I would smile appreciatively if the English language would grow, not around the edges, but at its muscular center, adding verbs as evocative and subtle as those used to convey the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

Note: While my least favorite word is “smirk” the collective least favorite is “moist.” We all like moist cake, but evidently the word itself is repugnant. Something about the sound I’ll bet.

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