Writer's tool kit

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Words are really fussy about the grammatical company they keep, and none more so than verbs.

Think, for example, of the verb "to stop" and how much more picky it is than its synonym "to cease". We can "cease" to understand our children, but we can't "stop" to understand them, though we can "stop understanding" them. And so on and on.

If you want a verb to work for you, you have to treat it well. You have to know what it's prepared to work with. How do we know? Through experience - experience of hearing and reading other people using verbs.

Another example: consider the verbs called "verbs of believing" - verbs like "think", "believe", "consider" and "regard" - all synonyms, but all used in different contexts. The verb "think" is an everyday word but the others are more "academic" and unfamiliar.

The point is that they each keep different grammatical company, and budding writers have to learn all their idiosyncrasies.

Here goes: You can "think", "believe" or "consider" that something is misguided, but you can't "regard" it. For example, you can't say "I regard that it's misguided". On the other hand, you can "regard" it as misguided, but you can't think, believe or consider it as misguided.

Clear? Perhaps you're in the same position as a lot of key stage 3 and 4 writers - pretty confused.

Sometimes in situations like this a different way of presenting the information, like the table, can help.

In our view, these unexpected patterns of which verbs will mix with which aren't to be seen as trip-wires, ready to make us look stupid. Instead they're sources of fascination.

And if we can get students exploring the unexpected pleasures of language, using graphs, charts and pictures, then the grammar phobia that so many older people have will simply fade away. But not dim away or disappear away or recede away.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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