Book Rec: ‘Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch’ by Constance Hale


Book Rec: ‘Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch’ by Constance Hale

Wired Style and Sin and Syntax author Constance Hale inspires an infectious appreciation for verbs in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. While the book dropped in 2012, its not-so-hot-off-the-presses status doesn’t diminish its readability, power, or utility for writers and editors.

Deep into the book, Hale relates that, while serving as an editor at Wired and Health, she would circle the verbs in the first two or three paragraphs of clips writers sent in. If the verbs struck her as dynamic and made the sentences jump, the writers got a call.

If not, not.

How’s that for scaring you into checking your verbs?

(Now that’s a phone you could slam to end a call!)

GREAT ADVICE: Circle your verbs to see if your sentences crackle.

On opening sentences with “there are” or “it is” constructions, Hale calls out the “phantom subject” (as termed by Patricia O’Conner in Woe Is I) as a bad idea, a “false start,” before also deriding throat-clearing constructions such as “I think” and “It seems like.”

Evenhanded throughout, Hale also writes that the authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language and usage expert Bryan Garner defend the “existential there” in certain contexts, specifically those pushing the emphasis to the end of a sentence (hard to argue with her example from Shakespeare: “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats”).

The best of books like Hale’s enrich our understanding of language and provide readers with tools for making writing and editing decisions.

Hale succeeds on all counts.

The Structure

As the author says early on, the book dips into “a little evolution, a little history, a lot of grammar, a little usage.” To explore these areas, Hale divides each chapter into four sections:

  • Vex, in which Hale explores confusing aspects of language, syntax, and verbs
  • Hex, in which the author tackles persistent myths about writing
  • Smash, in which Hale showcases poor usage and demonstrates how to avoid it
  • Smooch, in which Hale showcases good writing (and gets just a tad mischievous)

I read the book cover to cover, but as Hale herself asserts in the introduction, Vex, Hex works equally well, and perhaps better, when one picks and chooses sections to explore.

The book is designed in a way that facilitates this grab-bag approach, with the early chapters focused on linguistics and cultural history, the middle chapters on the grammar of verbs, and the late chapters on usage and style.

Wherever you enter the work, though, you’re bound to find something well worth your time.

Collective Soul

While I enjoyed the book, I do have a minor disagreement with the author over the treatment of collective nouns. Hale wrote that she always treats singular collective nouns as singular for verb agreement, whereas I prefer the strategy of treating the noun as singular when the members of the group are acting as a group and plural when the members of the group are acting as individuals.

Hale’s strategy is simpler and cleaner for editors, as no decisions need be made. In Garner’s Modern English Usage, we read that there is “little ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on the subject,” but that one should be consistent and not flip-flop between singular and plural verbs in a piece.

These gray areas should excite editors, should glint with a bit of magic. I like having the leeway to make those decisions. Everything can’t be one thing or the other, and I’m thankful for areas of language that require flexible thinking (though these areas do come with the knowledge that no matter what you do, someone will inevitably think you’re wrong).

The Wait Is Over!

I have to admit, this week I’m all about Chicago. I just got back from Dallas (where I saw both Dawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz at the Alamo!) and upon my return I found a little something on my doorstep.

Hello, Seventeen!

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