Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

When Nouns and Verbs Collide

By Steven E. Russell
©2004, Steven E. Russell


Nouns and verbs are the lead instruments of any story.  They are the violins, trumpets, French horns, oboes, and flutes.  Nouns and verbs carry the story in the same way these instruments carry the melody in an orchestra.  Prepositions, conjunctions and articles are the accompanying instruments that support and enrich the melody: the second violins, trombones, violas, and basses.  At times they carry the melody, but only in short passages.  Adjectives and adverbs are the percussion section -- essential to the overall affect, even dramatic at times, but when overused they drown the melody in discordant noise.  All the parts of speech are necessary to complete the symphony, but only the nouns and verbs can make it sing for the reader.

If nouns and verbs are the instruments that make a story sing, what happens if they're off-key -- if the nouns and verbs don't quite match?  Let's have some fun with noun/verb combinations we've all seen from time to time.

First, a disclaimer -- as all writers know, there are rules that should be learned, but rules are made to be broken. The art is in knowing when to break them for maximum effect.  Many of the examples in this article are common expressions.  Because we hear them in everyday speech and writing, we know what they mean.  The question becomes, "Do we really want to use them in our writing?"  It's important to remember that the rules are different for writing dialogue and for writing narrative.  Many of our characters will speak with questionable grammar and use idioms and slang expressions that we would hesitate to put in narrative.  The purpose of this article isn't an attempt to set down hard and fast rules, but rather to encourage writers to carefully reflect on the noun and verb combinations they are using in their writing.  Ask yourself the question, "Are the nouns and verbs I'm choosing conveying the feeling I want?"

In the following examples, the names and sentences have been changed to protect the guilty.  Only the nouns and verbs remain the same.

First, there are the noun/verb combinations that are physically impossible.

"His eyes followed her up the stairs."

Really?  How?  I suppose they bounced back down like a pair of ping-pong balls and hopped into their sockets for a rest.

Another.  "Mary tossed her head in disgust."

"John, standing on the far side of the room, caught it on the first bounce and tossed it back to her."

Tossed is more commonly used with hair, but I've seen it used with head and, hey, it's a lot more fun that way.

Next are the noun/verb combinations that ascribe conscious action to an inanimate object.

"The table displayed a plethora of instruments and spare parts to be used in constructing the model."

This is one that trips many novice writers.  It usually occurs when someone, a friend or teacher, has just gigged the writer for a passive sentence: "A plethora of instruments was displayed on the table..."  The writer has written the same sentence in active voice but neglected to provide the actor as the subject.

For some reason, sentient tables have always bothered me.  Try something like, " John had displayed a plethora of instruments on the table."  You can improve on this, but it illustrates the point.

Another that I see frequently is "the sign said" or "the letter said."

Okay, not only have sentient signs been discovered but they also have learned to speak in our language.  But, beware.  Many writers try to correct this problem with the approach, "the sign read" We all know that signs can't read.

"Jeremy had been hiking all day on the mountain trail.  Something in his backpack was trying to poke a hole in his shoulder."

Wait a minute.  What did he have in his backpack?  The verb 'trying' doesn't quite fit here.  Forget for a moment that the sentence would be just as effective had it been written, "Something in his backpack was poking a hole in his shoulder."  That's a different article.

Trying requires intent and it's important that the actual intent is understood before the verb 'trying' is attributed to the noun.  For example, suppose Jeremy carried his pet ferret in the backpack.  You have to ask yourself, "was the ferret really trying to poke a hole in Jeremy's shoulder or was it trying to escape?"

A word of caution is warranted here.  Don't confuse the use of noun/verb combinations that ascribe impossible actions as suggested above with the appropriate use of metaphors.  For example, "The wind whispered through the aspens."  We all know the wind can't actually whisper.  Still, this is a great metaphor and anyone that has been in the mountains of Colorado will immediately relate to it.

A third group is the use of a really, really big verb, with an ordinary noun.

"The mouse ripped into the sack of corn."  Mighty Mouse, maybe.  Him, I can visualize ripping into a burlap bag.  I can also visualize "The mouse chewed its way into the sack of corn."  I can even visualize "The mouse gnawed a hole in the sack of corn."  But ripped?  Nope, can't see that one.

Another good one is, "The rain pounded on the metal roof."  Okay, I'm being picky.  People living in Texas and surrounding states understand that expression.  Texas has Morton's Salt™ rain -- "When it rains, it pours®."  But those who have lived their entire life in Seattle may have difficulty with this concept.  In Seattle, one inch of rain requires three days of steady rainfall.  I've lived in both places and while I may be stretching the point somewhat, don't forget that the geographical location of the story may influence your choice of verbs.

If it's possible for verbs to overpower the noun, then the opposite must also be true.  Big noun, small verb, a reader's reaction is usually, "huh?"

"The tornado skipped through the town, leaving death and destruction in its path."  If you're familiar with tornados and their behavior, you will know that some tornados actually do skip across the land.  But unless you're writing a news report about the tornado or a factual monograph on the same subject, skipping may not be the image you want to convey to the reader.  Skipping conjures an image of light and carefree behavior.  It goes with whistling Zip-a-dee-do-dah better than with death and destruction.  Ripped fits with tornados better than mice.  "The tornado ripped through the town..."

Here's one I read just last week.  "The truck cruised down Main Street."  I had to read it twice.  Porches cruise.  BMW Z3's cruise.  Even little Miatas cruise.  Trucks, except maybe for pickup trucks filled with adolescent boys, don't cruise, and if you've ever driven next to one in your little Miata with the top down, you understand.  When selecting a verb, consider the mood you are trying to project.  "The truck lumbered along Main Street."  In the first example, the reader can't hear or even see the truck.  In the second, by changing a single word, the reader can hear the rattling and banging of the truck, see the black exhaust belching from the stacks and smell the acrid diesel fumes.  In the actual story I was reading, the writer continued in the following sentences to describe the noise, sight and smell of the truck, leaving my imagination locked away, disappointed and unused.

The following was written by Keith Reynolds, a retired English and History teacher, writer, mentor and friend:

Verbs root prose in description, narrative and movement toward the fulfillment of the story.  Verbs drive characters to prove the premise of prose and poetry.  For diversity and variety, a writer may choose ANY verb at his/her disposal...  The writer's choice of verbs tests his ability to build for the reader a livable, fictional dream...

So in the final analysis the writer is all powerful in crafting the story and may use any verb available -- at least until the publisher and the reading public has the opportunity to pass judgment.  The trick is to create the best verb and noun combination -- one that is believable and delivers the feeling and drama the story deserves.

"The herd of horses ran across the valley floor."

"The stampeding horses thundered across the plain."

You choose.