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 

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On Being Specific, Definite, and Concrete

William Strunk Jr.

. . . the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by
being specific, definite, and concrete.
The greatest writers … are effective largely because
they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.
Their words call up pictures.

~ William Strunk, Jr. (1869 – 1946)
American Professor of English at Cornell University,
Author of The Elements of Style

. . .

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Omit Needless Words

William Strunk Jr.

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words,
a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that
a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and
a machine no unnecessary parts. 

~ William Strunk, Jr. (1869 – 1946)
American Professor of English at Cornell University,
Author of The Elements of Style

The Words I Don’t Write
The Notes We Can Leave Out

. . .

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Write With Nouns and Verbs

William Strunk Jr.

Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.

~ William Strunk, Jr. (1869 – 1946)
American Professor of English at Cornell University,
Author of The Elements of Style

Verbs, the Secret Behind Fine Prose
Out You Go, Adjectives and Adverbs!

. . .

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Respect Your Reader’s Intelligence

E.B. White 3

No one can write decently who is distasteful of the reader’s intelligence,
or whose attitude is patronizing.

~ E.B. White (1899 – 1985)
American writer, essayist, creator of Charlotte’s Web,
and the man who updated and edited The Elements of Style, a writing and stylistic handbook by his Cornell professor William Strunk Jr., the evergreen guide embraced by generations of teachers, students, and writers

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