Why You Need To Know Your Parts of Speech

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentence,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs”

PATIENCE is always in short supply when there’s a spike in demand for quick, tangible results—the kind that has a screaming, nagging ring to it: “I want it, and I want it now!” I’m guilty of this myself.

Just last month, I sought the counsel and advice of a professional food photographer and in my agenda for our very first two-hour class, I shared with him an ambitious list of things I’d like to cover: styling, props, template settings for the dining room, manual mode, creative mode, my goodness, the works!

Ever the placating professional, the one who listens to the customer’s needs, Todd said OK to everything, but with a gentle nudge that “styling alone can take up a few hours” and that perhaps we could arrange a lesson for a future class. He was quick to point out too that our two hours would fly by quickly, adding that “we have to be focused on what you feel is the most important thing you would like to take away from tomorrow’s lesson.”

Embrace the Fundamentals
On the morning of our first session, guess what we eventually spent our time on? Talking about the basics, the very things I thought I knew, but in truth, hardly knew squat about—all the basic parameters of exposure: aperture, shutter speed, light sensitivity, and how to adjust them up or down, tweaking each one in fine balance with the other, all while dancing consciously with the light.

I thought I knew depth of field, but I’d be more honest if I told myself: “Not really, girl, you only kinda sorta know it.” And bokeh? Yes, of course, I’ve heard it before, I’ve even written a little reflection on the word. Gee, but I can’t quite remember what it is! Aperture priority? That too, sits in the recesses of my mind, but what’s the effect and purpose? Uh, not sure!

I suppose learning the craft of writing is no different—any craft, for that matter. Close our eyes on the basics, and run along with our bossy ego, chances are we can only go so far, as far as our fuzzy, kinda-sorta knowledge would take us.

So if you really want to write well, and write better, get to know your parts of speech. They are the building blocks of sentences, and it’s imperative you acquaint yourself with how they work, just as a painter would make it his business to understand the interplay of light and shadow, or a chef, the nuances of heat, and the fine balance between taste and texture, flavor and aroma.

The best part of our parts of speech primer is that it isn’t as complex as the lessons on exposure in my Photography 101 class. All you need to know is that there are nine parts of speech in English (I’ve counted them for you): 

part of speech (n)
a category to which a word is assigned in accordance with its syntactic functions. In English the main parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, determiner, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection.

Better yet, you don’t even have to remember that there are nine, or what they are, except these four:

  1. nouns (n)
  2. verbs (v)
  3. adjectives (adj)
  4. adverbs (adv)

Embrace the Wisdom of Writers
I’d always invite you to write these four parts of speech in the above order because it reflects one of the most important tenets of writing:

Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs

This writing advice from Professor William Strunk, author of that decades-old writing guide, The Elements of Style, echoes with the voice and power of a Commandment. Keep it close to your heart and live it everyday of your writing life, and the God of Writing shall bless you with abundance.

But a misbeliever might ask: How could adjectives and adverbs be lesser creatures compared to nouns and verbs? Aren’t they the ones that give color and flavor to the nouns and verbs? Aren’t they the ones behind the descriptive powers of language, the very ones that school teachers simply, absolutely love to see dancing across the lines in our essays?

Exuberant. Double tick. Scintillating. Triple ticks. Elated. Tick, tick. Voraciously. Good!

No, not really. Think about this: without the nouns and verbs, how could adjectives and adverbs do their magic in the first place? It’s like exuberant paint without the wall, or a lively leaf of coriander without a scallop to receive its garnishing magic. 

Trust me, if not, at least, trust Professor Strunk, or these writers:

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can
— E.L. Doctorow

All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentence
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Trust, for once, real writers, and not your teachers who merely push and peddle ideas that come from a place that’s only exam-worthy—not art-worthy, or craft-worthy, certainly not worthy of the altar of Beauty where few dare to worship, or even care to.

Next week: Clichés 

Write Well is a series of essays offering insights on how to write with
confidence, clarity, and style.

I invite you to follow me as I share the universal principles of writing well.
I’d also be interested to hear your observations on how we approach
writing and reading instruction in our schools, and your challenges.

Please share a comment below, or say hello to me at
viv@mywritinghome.com

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What I Teach at My First Writing Class

An entry from my Word Power Book: Sometimes, we can marvel at the lines and words our eyes have traversed. Where did I come across this word?

“Think of each word you write in
your vocabulary book as a dollar.”

VOCABULARY and parts of speech may not sound like the coolest things to talk about at your first writing class, but fundamentals are vital, so are good habits. If you want to write well, or at least not write badly, the most basic thing you need to do is to load up on words, get to know them, how they work, and the magic they can do.

If you can’t feel the magic just because reading is boring, and sentences make you dizzy, or you happen to loathe everything about English just because your school teacher sucks, don’t fret. The ability to feel magic and the flutterings of beauty can come later.

Build Your Word Power
What you must first concern yourself with, however, is word power. Increase it day by day, every other day, or every other two days, or three, if you happen to be as busy as the Prime Minister, or a bee.

If you must find an excuse, tell it to yourself, not your Mom or Dad, not least me. We’re all busy. We have no time. Whisper the excuse, articulate it clearly, so that even the wall can hear you say, “I have no time.”

The point is: Just keep at it, keep keeping at it, don’t stop.

Think of each word you write in your vocabulary book as a dollar. That always helps. Five words this week, one word the next, maybe none two weeks hence (the Weeks of Word Poverty!), but 18 words the week after as you play catch up. They all add up. Well, $365 at the end of the year for a year’s worth of one-word-per-day effort isn’t exactly peanuts.

So, let’s get started.

How To Capture a Word Entry
The next thing
I’ll talk about is the method of capturing each word entry. Find a ruled notebook—could be a school exercise book, something hardcover or ring-bound, or fancier like a Moleskine, which may just get you into the mood. Choosing your favorite color helps, but above all, go with whatever makes you happy.

Here’s where I’ll pull out my ring-bound Word Power Book from the shelf, and share with you my latest word—as of today, that word is knaidel, my 1,212th entry. Then, I’ll show you how each word entry is a near replica of what I see in my Oxford, my go-to dictionary in my MacBook Air.

This, for instance, is Oxford’s entry:

replica | ˈrɛpləkə |
noun
an exact copy or model of something, especially one on a smaller scale

This would be mine:

replica (n)
an exact copy or model of something, especially one on a smaller scale

Phonetic Symbols
Those undecipherable phonetic symbols, we can save for a sunnier day down the road when you have a hankering to geek out and learn pronunciation the traditional way. But why should you, when almost every online dictionary out there has a ‘hit play’ button accompanying each word? Click, and some gorgeous, mellifluous voice, or a tinny, robotic one, will articulate the word for you, if you’re into this sort of efficiency and inspired laziness. But who isn’t in this Age of Let’s Click, I Ain’t Got No Time?

Which really leaves you with one other detail—to capture the part of speech, the noun here in this case, which can simply be coded as “n” in brackets, or “v” should you be making a verb entry, or “adj” for adjectives, and “adv” for adverbs.

Hark, the werewolf cometh!

Words That Begin With Capital Letters
Remember to capture the first alphabet as a small letter, not in caps: “replica” and not “Replica.” You want to save the caps for words that do carry first-letter caps, such as Lucullan or Herculean.

1. Lucullan (adj)
    (especially of food) extremely luxurious

2. Herculean (adj)
    requiring great strength or effort

One last anal detail: line up the definition directly below the word (not the number), and definitely don’t capture it in run-on style:

2. Herculean (adj) requiring great strength or effort

I say this run-on look looks messy, and it causes an itch in the eye, itchier still if the definition spills over into the next line. But if you like to maximize every inch of real estate on your page, go on, embrace the mess! Just know that if you were my student, you have no choice but to do it my way.

I worship at the temple of David Ogilvy and all the genius copywriters and creative designers of his lineage, and you shall as well. Clean, clear look—good for the eyes, kind to the mind. Attention to detail. That’s my one sole goal in life. There’s no other option.

So go, get started! Find yourself a notebook, and make that first entry. Carve a new journey for yourself.

Next week: More on parts of speech, and why getting acquainted with them will help you make better writing decisions 

Write Well is a series of essays offering insights on how to write with
confidence, clarity, and style.

I invite you to follow me as I share the universal principles of writing well.
I’d also be interested to hear your observations on how we approach
writing and reading instruction in our schools, and your challenges.

Please share a comment below, or say hello to me at
viv@mywritinghome.com