A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech

What is a part of speech? You might not believe how much disagreement and nuanced analysis surrounds that question.

This essay ventures into some philosophical questions—What does it mean to classify a word, and how and why have those classifications changed?—before emerging with a bit of writerly advice. I find this excursion invigorating, like a deep‑sea search for treasure. Come along, and we’ll share the spoils.

According to one modern school of linguistic thought, only four word types—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—now qualify as parts of speech. Four. The nerve! … Continue reading

Try not to try

Sometimes it’s okay to try. Go ahead and try a new recipe. If someone you love has had a trying day, by all means try a little tenderness.

But most of the time, don’t try.

We all know what kids mean when they tell their parents, “I’ll try.”

How’s this for weak advice? (I swear I just read this in a newsletter.) “If you can’t justify the existence of some of your content, try to live without it.” Try to live without it? No! If you can’t justify its existence, dump it. Deep-six it. Sayonara, bye-bye, content, you are OUTAHERE. Ix-nay on the y-tray.

Sally’s going to try to eat smaller portions. Joe’s going to eat smaller portions. Who’s going to lose weight?

As for the Old College Try, it’s the Old College Fail. Give it the Old College Do.

The pen is mightier than the shovel

shovelingEskimos can’t have more words for snow than Central New Yorkers do. Finding myself in CNY at the moment, I have some choice words of my own for snow. Be gone.

I admit, though, that this white (or grey or black) stuff has its uses. For example, it inspires metaphorical thinking. One minute I’m chiseling frozen slush off the sidewalk; the next I’m thinking, This is like editing. Writers hack, hack, hack at the bits and chunks and heaps obstructing the mind’s way until either (a) we give up and leave our readers, like unfortunate pedestrians on a precarious trail, to fend for themselves or (b) we stand back in sweaty awe of the path that we’ve created.

If you’re hardy enough to apply a shovel to your own writing, you’ll want to give the heave-ho to the following words.

very It fails to emphasize: “I have a very strong desire to clear this walkway.”
really It weakens your point: “I really have a strong desire to clear this walkway.” (Better yet, put a verb to the heavy lifting: “I long to clear this walkway.”)
any other word that ends in -ly Adverbs are actually, truly, frankly, extremely, definitely, totally, literally, simply as insubstantial as the weightless, drifting snow that Eskimos call weightless, drifting snow.
just See Don’t say “just.” I’m just sayin’. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
proverbial See The proverbial proverbial. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
try See Try not to try. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)
different See Let me count the — different? — ways. (No point expending effort repeating myself here. Hey, wait a minute…)
the fact that The fact that you’re reading this blog Your visit makes me happy. Enjoy your stroll.
not This word does not have lacks muscle.
any other words that you can toss Going after culprit words like the ones in this list (or in any of a thousand such lists) warms you up. After you’ve chucked them, stretch, bend, twist, shake your arms, and hunker down for the real chore.
never I’m kidding. Of course you can say never. How else can you tell people what words never to use?

Come on now. Put your back into it.

P.S. Like all other rules — and unlike your back — these rules are for breaking. If you’re writing poetry or lyrics, say, or if you’re going for a certain voice, or if you have a reason of any other kind (good reasons being preferable by most accounts), knock yourself out. Not literally. There, I broke a rule. I also broke one in sentence #1. Anyone notice? (John, Doug, thanks for the replies that prompted this P.S.)

“To be” or not “to be”: A challenge

Here’s my lightning talk on this topic (at the Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 5, 2014):

This short post below represents an early version of a substantial chapter in my book, Word Up! You can download the complete chapter, “To Be or Not To Be,” for free from my “Excerpts” page.

Here’s my challenge to you. Dump to be. Get rid of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be, won’t be, and so on. At least avoid using them as main (linking) verbs, as in “Our product is superior.” Give your readers an action verb instead. Tell them what your superior product does.

Take special care to weed out there are, here is, and it’s in their various forms.

Limit to be verbs to these uses:

  • to support another verb (“You’re learning.”)
  • to comment on existence (“We think, therefore we are.”)
  • to emphasize an equation (“The medium is the message.”)
  • to play with a to be expression (“It’s lonely in the middle too.”)
  • to create an aesthetic effect, such as a cadence (“If you’re wasteful with words, why should I trust you with money?”)

When you recast to be sentences in creative ways, you’ll use fewer clichĂ©s, fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, and in general fewer words. You’ll use more (and more forceful) verbs — the strongest part of speech there is. The strongest part of speech, period.

Try it. The difficulty might surprise you. Persistence will reward you.


(I first published this article, in a slightly different form, in the spring 1991 issue of IABC Communicator, the newsletter of the Central New York chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.)