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Phrasing Verbs Well


I just finished reading a wonderful little novel translated from Korean to English.

Along the way I discovered several little jeweled takeaways about life and language.

The protagonist, Yeongju, abandons the corporate world to follow her dream of opening a neighborhood bookshop. Right up my alley.

In the midst of this adventure she realizes that owning a bookshop involves the art of writing. Again, right up my alley. In time, her blog and social media catches the attention of a newspaper editor who invites her to write a regular column. After writing the first draft of the first installment, she asks a writer friend to proofread. What follows is an absolutely wonderful writing lesson.

Before getting in to it, let’s begin with a refresher:

The definition of a sentence is a set of words that communicates a complete idea, is completely self-contained. A single sentence contains a subject and a predicate and can tell, command, ask, or exclaim. There you have it. Simple, right?  Well, yes, and then again NO.

Student writers should never (not ever) focus on learning all the rules before trying to compose sentences. No, no, no!  But along the way, via both direct instruction and editing, students will learn grammar the meaningful way.

Form follows function. Ideas are what make sentences come to life. Polishing form is a detail that follows idea making.

So in the story, Yeongju is writing that first article about how it feels waiting for customers to fill up her bookstore. She writes the sentence:

The customers were awaited. Awkward, right?

Her writer friend explains why this is grammatically awkward to Yeongju:

“‘Sonnim gidareyeojyeotda—the customers were awaited. The phrasing is awkward.”

“We use the passive form when the subject undergoes an action. So eat becomes eaten. But using the passive form with the verb to wait makes it seem like the the subject, the customers, was undergoing the action of waiting and this is odd” (213).

But what intrigues me is that Yeongju has the tenacity to explain her why she chose this awkward verbiage:

“Sonnim gidaryeotda—I waited for the customers,” doesn’t seem to adequately express the feeling of awaiting customers.  She wanted desperately to convey  the emotion of waiting that she experienced as owner of the bookshop.  Ultimately, it was suggested that she had indeed communicated this in her progression of sentences:

“‘Try reading the essay from the beginning. Your sentences clearly bring across the feeling you hope to express. You’re thinking that you have to put the emphasis in this sentence, right? There’s no need to. Those emotions have been sufficiently conveyed throughout the text. In fact, it’s better to keep this sentence plain'” (214).

This is what I love about books, the unexpected lessons!

Three takeaways from this little passage of reading:

1)  Each sentence we write is a self-contained unit.

2) Each sentence we write exists in community.

3) Always re-read what you write.