Thursday, December 01, 2011

Burying the verb in a noun

I've been coming across a certain stylistic problem, both in the nonfiction I've been editing, and also in, ahem, some fiction. Here's an example:

A flood of relief came over me.

Let us not dwell on where this sentence came from; that is not important. Nor, for our purposes, is the fact that it's a cliche. The problem is that there are actually two verbs in the sentence: a strong, vivid one, which is disguised as a noun ("flood"), and the weak, bland, actual verb ("came"). The overall effect is a wordy and mushy sentence. The fix:

Relief flooded over me.

OK, there is still the problem of the cliche. But now that we have one specific verb, "flooded," we can start tweaking it: Relief poured over me. Relief trickled through my veins. Relief poured over my shoulders like a hot shower. Or maybe we should just leave well enough alone for now...

The point is, I've suddenly become very aware of this problem, so it seems to be everywhere. There may even be a fancy rhetorical name for it. What's nice is that it's easy to fix: just look for weak, flabby verbs like "came" and then search the rest of the sentence for the real verb, which is likely present, but disguised as a noun.

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