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At times, I look to the masters for ideas.

More than once, William Zinsser (1922-2015) has come through for me. He wrote On Writing Well more than 40 years ago. In the book, Zinsser, a writer and teacher, preaches simplicity and removing clutter.

He says that he writes, rewrites and rewrites some more. He looks for ways to trim words to improve clarity.

I didn't have to read many pages before I found inspiration.

Verbs express actions. Adverbs boost verbs, telling you how the action is carried out.

They ate lavishly on their honeymoon.

She laughed loudly at all the TV commercials.

They traveled extensively but always loved returning home.

But a strong verb doesn't need help. It's powerful enough on its own.

Zinsser gives the example of "smiling happily." Smiling is already an outward sign of happiness.

Other examples of unneeded adverbs:

The man slowly plodded. Plodding is rarely a speedy pastime.

He babbled incoherently. That, in fact, is what a babbler does: utters incoherent things.

She furrowed her brow quizzically. The furrowing tells us she has a few questions.

The toddler skipped merrily. Just try to skip gloomily. I'll bet you can't.

The professor slipped clumsily on the ice. Slipping normally isn't a graceful gig.

He crept slowly across the floor. If he creeps rapidly, he's not doing it correctly.

Mom shouted loudly. To get the point across, shouting should be loud.

So, choose your verbs carefully. When you find the right one, it needs no help at all.

I will turn to Mr. Zinsser again. Everyone should get to know him.


I have seen some verb abuse recently. In each case, a person took an innocent verb and turned it into a noun:

I have a big ask.

Yes, that shortened the sentence, but it makes more sense to say, "I have a favor to ask" or "May I ask a favor?"

The detective planned an elaborate reveal.

That means he will reveal something. Or that he will disclose a revelation.

Did you do a restart?

That is a frequent question from IT people. They mean, "Did you restart your computer?" It's not much harder to say.

This week I decided to unsubscribe from many emails. One site informed me that I was having a problem with my "unsubscribe." That hurt my head.

When you wash clothes, your washing machine may "do a rinse," or it might simply "rinse."

And in one episode of Breaking Bad, a character refused to do another "cook." Clearly, drugs are bad for your grammar.


This week I wondered about the verb "jimmy." I have heard the phrase "jimmy the lock," but I never thought to look it up in the dictionary. It sounded like it might be slang.

I learned that "jimmy" is the name of a crowbar. Here, the noun also is used as a verb. You use such a crowbar to force something open or to "jimmy it."

Cooler than this is that the English language has a history of giving human names to tools.

The thing you use to change a tire? A jack.

A derrick, the huge piece of machinery that moves large objects, comes from the name for a 16th-century hangman.

"John" might be pushing the concept, but I guess a toilet could be considered a tool.

Sources: Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries, The New York Times, World Wide Words

ActiveStyle on 03/19/2018

Print Headline: Write it, rewrite it, then edit


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