Writing Better Sentences, Part 2—Noun style, verb style

Here is another writing technique that is simple to understand, but substantial in effect: the difference between a noun-based style and a verb-based one. It comes from Richard A. Lanham’s Analyzing Prose, an excellent guide and textbook, but I’m going to strip out much of Lanham’s classifications of rhetorical styles, and give you his tips alone. I’m then going to ally his advice to a couple of suggestions on sentence openings from The Well-Crafted Sentence, by Nora Bacon, as they seem to fit. I’m afraid that for fiction writers, this post’s concerns may seem too broad, but it will narrow down. Essayists should be delighted almost from the start.

Lanham quickly distinguishes a verb from a noun style.

I came. I saw. I conquered.

Arrival; Reconnaissance; Victory.

The verby version, I think you’ll agree, sounds better, and essentially this is Lanham’s point—passages that rely on verbs usually sound better than those that rely on nouns—although his mission of impartiality, his persona of the mere catalogue-maker, somewhat obscures this moral. Verb styles sound better, and yet we constantly confront noun-style writing whenever we open an official document, or read a scholarly text. Lanham quotes, as an example noun style, this:

The connection between behaviour in the socially real world and dramatic performance is a double link. Much of everyday social behavior and socially consequential action is itself composed, and often in a fashion which is recognised at the time as ‘theatrical’ or is revealed as such afterwards.

He points out the basic structure of this sort of prose: “noun + is + prepositional phrase.” If you do not use strong verbs, you risk getting locked into this pattern. To separate out the pieces of the just quoted sentence, the verb in bold, prepositions in italics—

The connection

between behavior

in the socially real world

and dramatic performance

is a double link.

Opening my filing cabinet, and pulling out an official document at random, I see:

Adjuncts and Visiting Lecturers are eligible to receive contributions from the College towards health insurance premiums.

This kind of writing isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it is dull. 

In contrast, here is Virginia Woolf, representing the verb style, using verbs to lead her description of night, in To the Lighthouse:

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where golden letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.


Perhaps you noticed, however, that Woolf’s passage actually contains many prepositional phrases, such as “in the gloom of cool cathedral caves.” Lanham points out that Woolf chooses to emphasise these phrases by frequently keeping them the same length, and so building a deliberate rhythm into the passage:

The autumn trees, ravaged as they are,

take                       on the flash of tattered flags

kindling               in the gloom of cool cathedral caves

where                   golden letters on marble pages

describe death in battle       and how

bones bleach and burn        far away in Indian sands.

She also draws attention to these phrases through alliteration (“describe death”) and assonance (“marble pages,” “gloom of cool”), pushing the reader to hear as well as see her words.

This style also allows Woolf to start her sentences quickly, with the “subject-verb” opening that forms the basis of the English sentence (e.g. “The winter holds,” “The autumn trees gleam”), and so the complexity to which her sentences build never seems too hard to read. Noun-styles, on the other hand, lacking firm verbs with which to direct their action, tend to rely on long sentence openers, and worse, on abstract words like “phenomenon,” “reason,” or “relationship”—word bogs both for reader and writer. Nora Bacon, in The Well-Crafted Sentence, gives this example, complaining of its long, abstract subject:

Another reason that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake is that it caused the stature of the United States as a world leader to plummet.

She corrects it to:

Furthermore, when the United States invaded Iraq, its stature as a world leader plummeted.

This is not only shorter overall, but a reader can much easier determine what the sentence is meant to be about (“when the United States invaded”).

Lanham points out that, if translated into verb-style, most noun-style sentences can be shortened. Verb-style seems to lead to plainer, simpler ways of expressing ideas—someone or something must act. Yet, to disagree with Lanham, I notice that in academic writing, noun-styles often help a scholar create his or her own hyper-brief intellectual shorthand, certain enigmatic terms taking on more and more weight. This is one of the difficulties with reading my favourite critic, Harold Bloom, who assigns normal-seeming nouns bewildering significances. This is a choice sentence from A Map of Misreading,

The reader, like Browning’s belated quester, might wish to separate origins from aims, but the price of internalization, in poetic as in human romance, is that aims wander back towards origins.

This, by the way, is the first sentence of a chapter. Even if you know the poem which Bloom is referring to, and can roughly guess his point, the linkages between these nouns are so vague (“wish,” “wander”) that pinning them down requires Herculean effort. Noun-style sentences can be unnecessarily verbose, it’s true, but their real problems come when they seek to be terse. 

In reality, few writers consistently maintain such a clear style preference, and good writing can mingle action and object, verb and noun style. Re-skimming The Crying of Lot 49, I sense that Pynchon is fond of nouny sentences, but without a comprehensive number-crunch, it’s a hard intuition to confirm. Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness is defiantly nouny, but I’m not sure that this damages it, Russell’s insights running smoothly, even if his verbs look sickly pale.

The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness. I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life. A painter, let us say, who has been obscure throughout his youth, is likely to become happier if his talent wins recognition. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.

And here is Thoreau, speaking of solitude, both his nouns and verbs doing their fair share:

Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.

So, once you have learned to avoid the most basic pitfalls of the noun-style (i.e. avoiding the long abstract openings, the repetitions of “noun + is + prepositional phrase”), I’m not sure that the distinction remains a fatal one. For aspiring fiction writers, one trick may be to vary one’s use of nouns and verbs when describing people or places. When you are searching for a particularly virulent noun, the solution may be to throw in a verb instead, and make the description dynamic, not merely static.

Say you start from:

She was a woman with red hair, her legs skinny like poles.

If unsatisfied with this, you could either work in more adjectives and nouns:

She was an ill-looking woman with scraggly red hair of a sorry tone, wearing holed tights and an odd green dress, loose around her shoulders.

Or, alternatively, you could weave in extra clauses, going verb style,

Her legs were so skinny they attracted unwilling eyes, and her hair, though dark red, looked thin. John guessed that if he reached to touch it, his fingertips would graze dry scalp. When he had first come to Montreal, the apartment’s previous tenant had left behind a moth-chewed armchair of lurid green: this woman’s dress seemed made from the same material.


Of course, the rule is—play around with words. Discover what works.

Next time: also from Richard Lanham (with help from Stanley Fish), the two main ways to relate ideas—hypotaxis and parataxis. In other words—writing like F. Scott, or writing like Hemingway. Using “and” or “because.”

See you next week.


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