Acting and Being

Let’s look at two short sentences of very different grammatical structure. Pause for a moment after reading each and try to perceive what is underway, what is going on, who is doing what. Here is the first sentence: He pounded his fist on the table. And here is the second: He was angry. All of us would say, certainly, that something is clearly going on in the first sentence. A specific action is represented by a specific transitive verb, pounded, and that verb calls onto stage a concrete noun, fist, which in turn will involve another concrete noun, table. The curtain rises as we read the sentence, and we see activity, an idea made real in our minds with words.

Now let’s look at the second sentence. To our question what is going on? we can only reply, well, not much. The subject was not doing anything; rather, he was something: he was anger at the moment, and the quality (or characteristic, or feature) of anger was associated with him by means of an adjective, angry. Adjectives (the word in Latin means added to) name qualities as they are applied, or added, to nouns and pronouns. And so the scene in this second sentence has a look and feel very different from the first. The curtain rises not on action, but on identity. We are to think, not see, and that grammatical structure produces quite a different effect.

Traditional language study works on the assumption that sentence structure carries meaning: change the structure and we change the meaning. What is it, then, that has changed structurally in the second sentence to strike us so differently? The verb. Was is a form of the verb to be (some other forms are: is, am, are, were, have been), and the verb to be most often predicates identity, not action. Identity means being the same as something else, or what is called a state of being, or state. Verbs of state (some others are seem, appear, feel) identify the subject with a noun, pronoun, or adjective in the predicate, and assert a sameness between the two. To state that he was angry means grammatically he = angry, and he = anger logically. Verbs of state bring our readers’ attention to a condition, a situation, a circumstance, not to a scene of action, doing, or movement.

This distinction between verbs of action and verbs of state has serious practical implications for our writing. The entire art of writing stands traditionally on the principle that words are symbols. When we are casting clauses and building sentences, we are trying to re-present a scene we have observed, an event whether real or imagined. Verbs of action, both transitive and intransitive, show things up against one another, not necessarily in strict conflict, but in relation or connection or dealing. Verbs of action require otherness; transitive verbs have direct objects which are other than the subject (he pounded his fist), and intransitive verbs show a subject in a place, existing somewhere (he was at home). Verbs of state, on the other hand, show a subject existing as something. To say that he was angry means to say that he was existing as anger just then; the subject is being identified with an idea, it is not exemplifying the idea. To pound a table is to exemplify anger; to say that he was angry is to stand at one remove from the live nerve which is life.

It is standard counsel in writing to say we should prefer verbs of action to verbs of state, but it is not standard counsel to say that we should aspire to this absolutely. The two independent clauses I just wrote in the preceding sentence each employ is, the chief verb of state in English. Using that verb correctly (as I hope I am doing here) brings a needed rest or pause to the ongoing action of the other sentences which (like this one) try to keep the attention on action (bringing a rest and trying to keep). It is, as always, a matter of balance, of proportion, and looking closely at the verbs we have written in our first draft will draw our attention to the manner in which we have involved ourselves in the scene we are writing for others to share. Our readers want both to see and to understand what we saw and thought, and a judicious balance of both will help to secure their attention.


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