Today's cosmic question evokes the memory of a young lady whose name, I believe, was Ramona. According to the golden oldie, she "awoke to find her love was gone." Or maybe he awoke to find that she was gone. Whatever. I'm trying to back into a column on verbs.
What about it? She awoke? Or she awaked? It was a poignant, perhaps a disappointing experience for Ramona, but we are not talking of past loves, but of past tenses. Which is it? Awoke? Or awaked?
I will not hold you in suspense. The answer for writers is -- it depends. Depends on what? It depends entirely upon your writer's ear. Semantically it would make not a dime's worth of difference if Titania awoke to fall for Bottom or awaked to fall for the ass. Does your ear call for a long "o" or a long "a"?
Gene Warner, a book reviewer for The Buffalo News, reviewed a book dealing with the murder of Marilyn Sheppard 50 years ago. The case had sensational elements -- a handsome doctor, his pregnant wife, violent death in a tony Cleveland suburb. Said Warner: "Author James Neff has weaved these elements into a murder mystery of sorts."
Has weaved? Or has woven? Long "e" or long "o"? The driver weaved or wove his way through heavy traffic. Penelope wove or weaved a shroud. We read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. Consciously or subconsciously we respond to the cadence of language.
Tell me about lighted and lit. Does your sentence feel better with two syllables or one, the long "i" or the short one? "All our yesterdays," cried Macbeth, "have lighted fools the way to dusty death." But Mickey Spillane would never have written that his hero, Mike Hammer, lighted a cigarette. He lit 'em.
Imagine this romantic scene: Tristan Smith has just proposed to Isolde Jones. How did the fellow do it? He kneeled at her feet. Or he knelt there. Then he noticed a hole in her socks and called the whole thing off. No. He had just shined his shoes (not shone them), and didn't want to waste his labor. Let us love the sound of long vowels -- vowels that ring like big bells. We must listen to what we write.
Writers must also be concerned with maintaining the tone of their work, and tone is not easily defined. Some writing is formal. If an invitation says "black tie," we had better not come in tennis shoes. Other work is casual. The distinction between sneaked and snuck provides an example. Merriam-Webster says snuck has risen "to the status of standard and to approximate equality with 'sneaked,' " but we should tune our ears to the occasion. If we are dealing in high tragedy, an assassin sneaked. If we are writing about a chicken thief, he snuck.
Or perhaps he slinked. Or slunk. Let us ask about the shirt. It shrunk. Or perhaps it shrank. The verb "to sink" provides respectable alternatives. A ship either sank off Gibraltar or sunk off Gibraltar. Bill Bennett sank a fortune, or sunk a fortune, into slot machines and poker.
What is your call on the past tenses of "to strive"? It is a splendid verb. But do we properly write that Bennett strove to break his addiction, or that he strived? Actually, he just kept betting hundred-dollar chips. Too bad. As a reporter, I covered the gentleman for a good many years and found him a first-rate person. But I digress. Back to verbs!
Our marvelously fecund language gives a writer nice choices. In February I wrote that some editors were treading "where no respectable American editors had tread before." Col. Joseph E. Boling of Federal Way, Wash., winced at the past perfect. "Trod!" he cried. "Or trodden!" I am properly admonished. Perhaps I was thinking of books I had read or of defendants who had pled. Let me off a leash and I wander.
A caveat in closing: Style is important, but content comes first. We could talk all afternoon of long vowels and fricative consonants, of cadence and rhythm and the little dog tricks of rhetorical prose, but what counts most tellingly is not the pretty word, but the right word. If we first master the meaning of English verbs, there will be time enough to master their conjugation.
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Or e-mail him email@example.com.