Monday, February 4, 2013

L is for Linking Verbs

Why is this my topic for today? It won the toss up as the best choice over these others: language, literary, lexicon, and linguistics. I almost chose lexicon, because I find it tempting to poke fun of The Jargon File. Seriously? Who cares about some obscure "choice" words and phrases known only by the geekiest people in the world? I know, I know…maybe next time!

I am picking on linking verbs because I don't like to read them. They bore me to tears. I'm not a hypocrite, so I will admit I use them plenty, but I edit them out as much as possible. However, you don't want to go and edit them out altogether. People might think you’re inept, with a slight case of OCD.

And why should you listen to me anyway? It’s not like I’m an expert or anything, at least not in writing. But, I am a reader! That means, I’m reading your writing, and if I don’t like it, then you should want to know why, right?

But, Diane, what one reader likes or dislikes is subjective. Why should I listen to you? 

I'm not calling you a bitch, I just really love this graphic!

The answer is: Because, I’m loud. When I read something I like, I talk about it. I talk about it a lot. If you’re a writer and you want a loud mouth talking about your stuff (a lot), then you should listen to me.

Linking verbs are the words which refer to the state of being. They mark the condition of an object: Am, is, was, were, will be, has been, had been, can be, may be, should be, could be, become, and would be. I shudder now. I need to bathe myself in Clorox bleach.

Here are two examples using linking verbs I mentioned:

The dog was hungry.

Frank is nervous.

Boring, right? This is not what is meant by the phrase "less is more", and if it is, I'm giving up on writing.

Try something like this instead:

The dog stood staunch, each bone in his haggard body defined. His growl began low in his throat, and his eyes never left the 6 oz. sirloin blazing on the grill.

Is there any doubt this dog is hungry?

How about this:

Frank's palms clammed up and his heart beat faster. He waited three seconds too long to kiss her.

Have you ever waited for the right moment to do something like kiss someone for the first time? Were you nervous? Of course you were! You don’t have to tell us about the state of your character so long as you show us what is happening to them. It’s the whole point of the phrase show don’t tell. That’s why linking verbs are bad. You take away my power as a reader to interpret for myself.

More subtle and less common forms of the linking verb which we writers encounter in our works are "appear" and "seem". I don't mind these as much, but the over-use of these words grinds on my nerves.

Here's a double whammy:

The woman appeared to be sad.

Really? Why don't you describe her behavior, her body language, and her proximity to whatever it is that could possibly be making her sad and let me, the reader, decide if she's sad or not? Is she holding onto her husband who just died? Of course, if she's sobbing, that would clearly indicate she's sad.

And don't tell me the dog seemed angry. Is he barking? Growling? Have that mutt bite someone. We'll know he's angry, or at least irritated.

What about the sensory linking verbs? Describing an object using sensory linking verbs is also a little too safe and boring to me, but I do it myself in my drafts. The verbs look, taste, smell, sound, and felt are linking verbs.


The apple pie tasted delicious.

Just so you know, I'm using really gross examples so that my re-writes will appear extremely profound.


The gooey warmth inside the flaky crust of granny's apple pie melted on her tongue, spreading the sweet, cinnamon flavor like butter on a hot griddle. 

You see, we know it tastes delicious. I use the caring words of one who loves apple pie. If I wanted you to know that it was anything other than delicious, I'd have written it thusly,

The putrid concoction inside the pie exploded onto her tongue like Coca Cola on a corroding battery. 

See? I occasionally want brief explanations like whether something tastes like crap or not, but when reading and immersing within another world, I want a balance of both. That means, cut down on the linking verbs and give me a little creativity!

Do linking verbs bother you much? Do you prefer brevity over verbosity? We’re all different in the pleasures we gain from reading, so please share yours! What do you hate and what do you love?

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