Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Verbs More Generally

The passive voice is a special case of the use of verbs more generally. "Bad writing," says Christopher Lasch (Plain Style, p. 75), "relies on nouns and adjectives to carry the thought and relegates verbs to an insignificant role." Lasch's rather harsh judgment should be of particular interst to us here at Research as a Second Language: he identifies the enemy as "dull, noun-heavy, Germanic prose" (my emphasis). That is, he seems here to blame continental Europe for bad academic writing in English.

I don't know about the Germans, but he definitely has a point about nouns. When we learn a language we naturally approach the problem in terms of amassing a vocabulary, and we tend to think of this as a lexicon of nouns. This is no less (and perhaps more) true when we set out to acquire our academic language competency. Here we construe our field of specialization in terms of the things that our terminology refers to and what those things are like. It is no wonder we learn all the right nouns and adjectives first.

If we don't make a special effort to identify the verbs that circulate in our field and learn how to use them as well, we are likely to succumb to the repeated use of the verb "to be". This should be avoided. "Verbs signify action and movement," Laschs reminds us, "and a sentence built around a lively verb will tend to generate far more energy than a sentence that merely piles up nouns, adjectives, and other modifiers." The problem arises because, once we have a list of things to refer to (a list of nouns) that easily identifies us as users of a particular idiom, we can in fact make do with "to be", "to get", "to have", and "to go" when joining them together.

But the world is not populated only with things and people that have names and attributes. These things and people also act. They do things. And your particular academic field is as much defined by its interest in what they do as its interest in who or what they are. It is interested in some things and not others; but it is not interested in everything that its object do. Or, perhaps more accurately, specific capacities for particular actions contribute to the constitution of the object-hood of your field's objects.

I'll have to say more about this later. I'll finish this morning by suggesting that you make a list of the sorts of doings and happenings and goings-on that your field is interested in. A list of "action words": verbs.

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