A World Without Verbs


This piece was retrieved from an old archive of my online writing—there will likely be some rough edges!

For those who don’t know the structure of a sentence, a world without verbs is an ambiguous fortune. “Is this something we’re for or against?”

A verb is, of course, the conveyance of action. “To do.” We run, jump, crawl, love. We abscond, congregate, pontificate. Action is at the core of what it means to be human. By assigning our instinctual motions a specific utterance—the runs and jumps—we give them meaning and significance. They become a part of the greater human experience. While the subject is truly the core of a sentence—without words for you or myself, or that tree, how would I tell you that we should go climb it?—the verb makes what we say come alive, in a sense. Any language is dead without it. Life is dead without it.

Then again, action is not a uniquely human trait. Going back to the universe’s creation itself, we have a fundamental movement. Something expands from nothing. So we can say this dependence on action is ubiquitous; neither the universe nor action can survive without the other. Of course, one particularly masochist writer thinks he can. In 2004, Michael Thaler published "Le Train de Nulle Part", a 233-page novel composed entirely without verbs. Without, by extension, any semblance of action. A Wikipedia editor was so generous as to provide a sample:

Fool’s luck! A vacant seat, almost, in that compartment. A provisional stop, why not? So, my new address in this train from nowhere: car 12, 3rd compartment, from the front. Once again, why not?

It certainly feels constrained enough. What I do admire in Thaler’s attempt here is a basic capacity to convey action without explicitly conveying any, but I still have no desire to read a novel entirely devoid of action. If action is impossible, so is progress, and so is the building of any narrative progress, a climax, a denouement.

And what I find boldly hypocritical in Thaler’s manifesto for the novel (because who tortures themselves to write 60,000 words of inaction without an agenda?) is that he’s a crusader against the verb as a fundamental crutch for human language. He describes his hatred for action: “The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers. You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish. Take away the verbs and the language speaks for itself.”

The blatantly irony, of course, is that he could not help but use no less than five verbs within a terse three sentences. But to deconstruct the inanity of his statement a little more: If the elimination of verbs allows for more “flourishing” language, how can he explain the dullness of his own work? We have a narrator who thinks only in vague exposition and useless questions. Description of a train car hardly makes for compelling storytelling. Thaler seems to be one of a self-replicating contingent that espouses the importance of beauty in syntax and archaic word choice over the capacity to tell a story. When a writer’s capacity to convey a story is subjugated by his overwhelming desire to stun the reader with frivolous wordplay, he has become nothing more than pandering jockey for his own elitism.

But one can’t stop a Frenchman from pushing his backward thoughts into a published novel. “Why not?” indeed.