Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs

My wife informs me that last week's grammarama was a little much, and she's usually right about these (and many other) things, so I shall try to rein in my exuberance even as I return to a grammatical topic this week.

A recurring theme in my teaching is the importance of aligning the grammar of a sentence with the action that the sentence depicts. I am forever trying to get writers to stay in the habit of expressing action in the form of a verb, with the actor as the subject of that verb. Your reader burns to know the answer to the question "Who did what?" and her eyes and her brain are wired to seek first the subject position (who) and the verb position (did what) in every sentence she reads.

If this idea of expressing actions as verbs and actors as subjects seems self-evident, it's not. Language is exceedingly flexible, and it provides a multitude of ways to express action in ways other than a good old-fashioned Subject-Verb-Object main clause. The following list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • The passive voice places somebody besides the actor in the subject slot: I took the bull by the horns becomes The bull was taken by the horns by me.
  • Nominalization turns the verb into a noun: I failed completely becomes My failure was complete.
  • A gerund also converts a verb into a noun: I swim constantly because I love it becomes Constant swimming is my passion or I love swimming.
  • Once you have turned the verb into a noun, you can make it the object of a preposition, so turning it into a modifier: My love of swimming keeps me in the water constantly (In this example, note that both actions I swim and I love get turned into nouns). The completeness of my failure became obvious to all.
  • A participle also turns a verb into a modifier: I went upstairs and sulkedbecomes Having gone upstairs, I sulked.
  • A subordinate clause pulls action out of the main through-line of a sentence and makes it a modifier: I went upstairs and sulked becomes I went upstairs, where I sulked.

The astute reader will notice that in some of these examples, the sentence actually works better when you move the action out of the subject-verb nexus. "I love swimming" turns the subject-verb I swim into a gerund, but it's at least as good a sentence as "I swim because I love it."

As I often say, every "problematic" construction in the English language exists because there are situations in which it's not problematic but exactly what you need.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly important that your default mode be action=verb, actor=subject. Feel free to depart from that pattern as often as you feel it's necessary, but do so consciously, not accidentally. (If you were to analyze my sentences in this letter, you would see that plenty of them move the action out of the subject-verb nexus).

A Case Study
I want to show you a couple of not-bad sentences from a student's story and show what happens when you start thinking in terms of subjects and verbs. In this story, the narrator and a girl named Kendall are picking holly berries, and then things go south:

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries, which I denied, and then, without warning, she slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

In this sentence there are three actions:

  1. Kendall accuses narrator of stealing berries.
  2. Narrator denies the accusation.
  3. Kendall slaps the narrator across the cheek.

Action 1 is expressed as an independent clause--Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries.
Action 2 is expressed as a subordinate clause--which I denied.
Acion 3 is expressed as an independent clause--then, without warning, she slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand.


This sentence contains no grammar errors, and it conveys all the necessary information, in the correct order: there is an accusation, a denial, a slap. (See what I did there? When I'm reducing the action to "mere information" I turn the verbs into abstract nouns. I'm a sly one.)

But when you write a sentence--especially when you're narrating, as our writer here is doing--you aren't just conveying information; you are conveying an experience. That adjective phrase "which I denied" abstracts the action out of the scene and turns it into data.

Your default setting should be to give each important action its own independent clause. You can always combine independent clauses into compound sentences, but in this case, let's turn our three actions into three sentences.

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries. I denied it. Then, without warning, Kendall slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

Three actions, three independent clauses. The narrator's act of denial, rather than being tucked away in a dependent clause, gets promoted to a more prominent position.

By giving the denial its own independent clause, we have brought it into the time and place of the scene. Which I denied has a merely logical relationship to the accusation and the slap, but I denied it, besides having a logical relationship, occurs on the same timeline with the accusation and the slap.

Now, here is where some writing magic happens. Because that "promotion" of the denial from information to action also makes it easier to see that I denied itis a little flat. It's on the timeline, and that's a good thing, but compared to the vividness of Kendall's two actions, there's not much in the way of felt experience. So now the writer starts to think about what it actually felt like to be that little girl in that moment. And now that action can come to life:

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries. I turned from the holly tree to look at Kendall, not sure if she was joking. When I saw she wasn't, I felt something rise up from my belly--was it righteous anger, or wounded pride? I couldn't say; I hadn't had enough experience with either.

"That's a lie," I said. You know that isn't true."

Then, without warning, Kendall slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

Grammar isn't just grammar. Good, direct grammar is a way of loving your reader because it makes things clear to the reader. But it also makes things clear to you, the writer. It shows you where you're being skimpy or evasive or under-informed or unnecessarily dull. Good grammar holds you accountable.

Do I sound dogmatic when I say your default should be to move the action of your sentences toward the subject-verb nexus? So be it. As Flannery O'Connor said, "Dogma is the guardian of mystery." Try following this rule, and you may be surprised at what you begin to see in your writing as the mysteries assert themselves.