Life Moves

Here is a beautifully written passage about the ocean coast by Rachel Carson, the pioneering and influential American nature writer. Carson is probably best known for her book Silent Spring, which in the early 1960s was instrumental in bringing attention to widening environmental dangers. The passage here is from her work The Edge of the Sea. I offer it as a model of fine writing, and as an illustration of a grammatical point I will make a few comments about:

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.

Writing like this is not a quick read, nor should it be. But if we aspire to write more vigorously, it behooves us to examine how good writing is put together (and that is what the word composition literally means) so we can learn to do it ourselves. Understanding structure can be the answer to a lot of difficulties we have.

One such observation we can make here is about what can be called the dynamism of the language. The paragraph contains 18 verbs, of which only five (about one-quarter) state some kind of identity: is (used three times), has been, and remains; the other 14 state an action of some sort: have broken, rises, shifts. This preponderance of verbs of action gives the passage its vigor; the paragraph is alive because it’s moving, things are happening: waves have broken and tides have pressed; glaciers melt and the earth’s crust warps. When we’ve finished reading, we feel as if we too had been swept up in all this natural unrest.

To analyze our verbs like this—and it’s nothing more complicated than asking ourselves in revising whether we can write what the subject is doing rather than what it simply is—can quickly transform our language from a static photo to a dynamic film. Strong, brisk language is more interesting because it stays close to life, and life is movement and movement is action.

If you’re interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website,, for more information about my work, or email me directly at I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

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