Verbal Sentence Openers – How to Write Athletic Prose


July 29, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Online Auction


Since English is my second language, I am very careful when I write my phrases, clauses, and sentences. In a good deal of my writing I use ‘Verbals.’ Because I strive to make my prose strong and athletic, I want to share what I have learned about this subject.

If a reader finds the following sentence opener:
Zigzagging and weaving around…

Without even mentioning a subject, the author shapes an image in the reader’s mind, who has no choice but to race ahead to see what it is that is moving in such fashion. The participal-forms of verbs ending in -ing (zigzagging and weaving) not only reflect movement, but also create an expectation, and an incentive to satisfy curiosity. And that is what all authors strive for; that is, to keep the reader busy, curious, guessing what falls next.

Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his daughter quoted a verse from Keat’s poem Eve of Saint Agnes, to point out how verb-participals move and carry the sentence:
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.

Participial-forms also end in -ed and -t, or -en (in some irregular verbs).

When one hears an imperative, one pays attention, as in when one hears: “Don’t do that!” Even when the command is subdue and conversational, the reader pays attention, as when Herman Melville draws the reader to his monumental Moby Dick with the imperative: “Call me Ishmael.”

Verbs and verbals pack and unleash a unique type energy that other parts of speech don’t; that is why master writers learn and master their use. Have you ever wondered what makes for racy, galloping, breathless writing? The answer is: expressing yourself with verbs and verbals.

Let’s define the Verbals:

Verbals are verb forms that are used not as verbs, but as:
Nouns: The General was fired for retreating. [Where ‘retreating’ is a gerund noun].

Subjects: To cook was an annoyance. [Where ‘To cook’ is an infinitive acting as subject].

Adjectives: Flying planes may be dangerous. [Where ‘flying’ is an adjective that modifies ‘planes.’].

Adverbs: The Senator had no reason to lie. [Where ‘to lie’ is an infinitive functioning as an adverb].

That verbals are powerful as sentence openers there’s no doubt. Yet, many writers –even successful writers– prefer to sprinkle their writing with proper adjectives and adverbs; for example: Undoubtedly, the weak General was fired for being cowardly.

Let’s admit that the verb, in the English language, is king; and like in the game of Chess all others pieces (including the queen), though important and powerful, they are so only in relation to the king.

Careless writers employ the verb ‘to be’ continuously, which is a sign of weak writing. So, to make your writing strong, follow this simple guideline: prefer verbals and strong verbs; avoid weak verbs. And even when using ‘to be’ as a copula, find a way to buttress it with verbals.

Scott Fitzgerald made an entry in a notebook, which shows his preoccupation –or obsession, one might say– with verbs: Forgotten is forgiven.

Verbals come in different forms and they are all effective because they include a verb form. So strong are these verbals that master writers use them not only to open sentences, but also to open paragraphs-even books.

For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy’s e-book: Sentence Openers.

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