Sunday, July 11, 2010

More Parsing Larsson: Verb Inventory

After yesterday’s post about Stieg Larsson, I got an itch to compare his verbs to some other writers’. Not that verbs are the biggest problem with Larsson’s writing. Far from it. Still, I was curious. So here is an inventory of verbs from a page of Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” a page of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and a page of Stephen King’s “Just After Sunset.”

I list these verbs in their base forms -- i.e. “had been” and “were” are listed as “be.” Verbs forming independent clauses are in all caps. Verbs forming subordinate clauses are lowercase. Participial modifiers are not counted as verbs.

Larsson, page 414 -- 18 sentences:
1. BE
2. BE
3. RECALL, HAVE, be
4. BE
5. UNDERSTAND
6. BE, FIND, find
7. BE, gnaw
8. NOTICE, take, keep
9. BE, BE, summarize
10. HAVE, BE, clear out, throw
11. THROW
12. BE, FIND
13. SEE, remove, deal with
14. SPEND, MISS, COME, HAVE
15. FIND, contain
16. GO, try, find
17. BE
18. DISCOVER, GO, USE

McCarthy, page 136 -- 15 sentences
1. bend, see, FEAR, be, put
2. GO, CROSS
3. SET, TAKE, PUNCH, PUNCH, DRAIN
4. PULL, POUR
5. TWIST, MAKE, POUR, PUT, SHAKE
6. POUR, TAKE, STUFF
7. TAKE, GET, STRIKE
8. TRY, STOP, POUR
9. FLARE, say
10. NOD
11. RAKE, BLOOM
12. REACH, BLOW, HAND
13. SAY
14. TAKE
15. DO

King, page 61– 27 complete sentences
1. HOLD, LOOK
2. LOOK
3. cut, SAY
4. LOOK, CUT
5. CUT
6. TRY, scramble, go, thump
7. PIVOT, BE
8. SEIZE
9. DANGLE
10. GET, TURN
11. WAIT
12. BRING, WANT, MAKE
13. REMEMBER, choke up
14. BE
15. BE
16. BE, be, SOUND, slacken
17. HAPPEN, BEGIN
18. STARE
19. STARE
20. do, SAY, REACH, take
21. SAY, SWING
22. HAMMER
23. BURST, snap
24. RUN, PATTER
25. stop, SAY
26. LOOK
17. SAY, BRING

25% (ten) of Larsson’s verbs are “be.” Just over 25% (eleven) are nonphysical or mental actions like “recall, “understand,” “summarize,” “discover” and “find.”

2-1/2% (one) of McCarthy’s verbs are “be” and 2-1/2% convey a state of mind (“fear.”)

10% (five) of King’s verbs are “be” and most of the rest are actions.

The process I used to choose these pages probably wasn’t fair. I started with a Larsson page I had already noted as bad then flipped through McCarthy and King for pages that looked about as dense with narrative as the Larsson page (that is, pages that didn’t have much dialogue). Still, I bet that a fair and complete accounting of the verbs in all three books would show similar -- if not quite as marked -- tendencies. That is, McCarthy and King rely more on action verbs while Larsson’s work relies more on verbs that convey being, seeming, or thinking.

That’s partly why I prefer reading McCarthy and King.

Larsson structures a lot of his sentences like this:

“The reason for her visit to the crime scene was to get two pieces of information” and “Second was an inconsistency that kept gnawing at her.” (p. 414)

Notice how, in both, he hangs the main clause on “was” and crams the more interesting stuff into less-prominent parts of the sentence. Imagine he had written them:

“She visited the crime scene to find two pieces of information.”
and
“An inconsistency kept gnawing at her.”

See how the noun “visit” can be made into an action? See how “gnaw” can be made the main action in the sentence instead of just part of a relative clause in a sentence whose main verb is the ho-hum “was”?

I think there’s a lesson in here …

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8 comments:

8'FED said...

I'm tempted to try and reconstruct the plot based solely on these lists, but that turns out to be even more difficult than it sounds. Here's a reconstruction of the first two sentences of McCarthy, and I'm not doing any more - this much took ages.

"As she bent down to see more closely the mysterious mark in the dirt, she feared that it was put there by a truly horrible creature. A monster supposedly gone extinct centuries before, a beast whose path no living person ever crossed."

Let me know if you want a turn, using a couple of sentences from a random text of my choice, but first, what was the original?

8'FED said...

Followup: I've only just noticed that you didn't include auxiliary verbs, which is probably sensible, but you could have been clearer about it.

For example, "had been" would otherwise become "HAVE, be" (that's two distinct verbs, each reduced to its base form) and "must be" would become "MUST, be", but you've dropped the auxiliaries to leave simply "BE".

Reconstructing the sentences might have been a little easier if I'd realised that I was allowed to add auxiliary verbs where I needed them.

June Casagrande said...

"But when he bent to see into the boy's face under th ehood of the blanket he very much feared that something was gone that could not be put right again. .They went out and crossed the yard to the shed. He set the bottle on th ebench and he took a screwdriver and punched a hole in one of the cans of oil and then punched a smaller one to help it drain. He pulled the wick out of the bottle an dpoured the bottle about half full, old striaght weight oil thick and gelid with the cold and a long time pouring. He twisted the cap off the gascan and he made a small paper spill from one of the seedpackets and poured gas into a bottle and put his thumb over the mouth ans shook it. Then he poured some out into a clay dish an dtook the rag and stuffed it back into the bottle with the screwdriver. He took a piece of flint from his pocket and got the pair of pliers and struck the flint agains thte serrated jaw. He tried it a couple of times and then he stopped and poured more gasoline into the dish. This may flare up, he said. The boy nodded. He raked sparks into the dish and it bloomed into flame with a low whoosh ..."

Very interesting to see your attempt at reconstructing the passage. McCarthy's special -- really special -- right down to his sentences. So to see a different take on it is really cool.

Have you not read "The Road"? If you're OK with bleakness, I highly recommend it. I think it's my all-time favorite book. Truly somethin'.

Good job on seeing a genuinely interesting story in a string of verbs! Hell, good job seeing the string of verbs as a challenge/puzzle!

June Casagrande said...

I thought about mentioning the auxiliaries issue, but I feared that doing so would create a little more explanation/tech speak than readers wanted to wade through. This was especially sticky with modal auxiliaries. How to count the verbs in "We should leave"? I just counted "leave."

Who knew that counting verbs could be so tricky?

8'FED said...

You left out the "go" in the first sentence (in "something was gone"), or rather "be go", as "be" seems to be the one auxiliary you do include.

I was surprisingly accurate in some respects, most notably in guessing that someone bent down to see something.

Here's a paragraph I've selected from a random novel. Perhaps you or another commenter would like to take up the challenge.

1. SPEND, engulf
2. DENY, STAMP, investigate, discuss, rescue
3. FIGHT, cross
4. BE, tell, talk

(I hope I've followed your rules correctly.)

Neal Whitman said...

I blogged about Larsson's (translated) prose recently, when my dad asked me what I thought about the sentence, "What he found was a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly." The translator himself joined the discussion in the comments.

8'FED said...

I feel that, as a matter of principle, I should reveal the paragraph I used above.

This is from Guardian of the Trust by Irene Radford, and is the opening paragraph of chapter eleven.

"Faeries? Bah! You've spent too many months engulfed in Welsh mists." Hugh denied Ana's statement as he stomped deeper into the cave, determined to investigate something, anything, rather than discuss pagan beings with the strange refugee he'd rescued. He fought the urge to cross himself. "Next you'll be telling me your dog talks to you."

June Casagrande said...

You know, in my head, I tried briefly to make a story out of that. I couldn't get past the first two verbs. Nothing was making sense. Made me appreciate what you'd done the first time.

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