Humpty Dumpty and the temper of verbs

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When I was two years old, my mother sewed me a Humpty Dumpty doll (red-striped pants, black slippers, a pleasing egg face) and sat him upon my birthday cake, among the candles.  My mother's Humpty Dumpty remains with me today, atop a cabinet of curiosities, a little watermarked and a little saggy, loved by time. (The Humpty pictured here was photographed a few months ago at the Please Touch Museum.)

Lately I've been thinking about Humpty, particularly the Humpty we meet in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, who has special privileges, so it seems to him, to use words just precisely the way he wants to.  Listen in:
    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
Maybe Humpty is a word smudger, an imperial word smudger at that, but he's most assuredly onto something when he says that verbs, some verbs, have a temper.  This fact I discover over and over each writing day, when an entire passage is destroyed by a flat or wrongly chosen verb.

What is wrong with this passage? I will ask myself.  Revisit your verbs, is most often the answer.


Lilian Nattel said...

Ah but adjectives are sneaky. They can become addictive, like sugar.

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