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· Veni, Vidi, Vici, Ulysses S. Grant Style ·

Last week I put grammatical moves on my students; I touted the strength of active verbs.

Comp teachers always have similar advice: to "prefer" them. We're so moved by them that, when passives appear, we are seen to hang our heads low, or at the sight of linkers, often to fall into a deep, existential angst. You might recall symptoms of that behavior even here, in my On Parsing English Justice.

Today I thought to beg the collegial but not yet psychological help of a great Civil War historian, James McPherson. His essay on Ulysses S. Grant, "The Unheroic Hero" (The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1999), I've long used to help students assess such verbs. McPherson's examples are instructive, not only in literature, but in life.

McPherson claims Grant's greatest stylistic achievements are two: "triumph in war, and success in writing [a] book [Personal Memoirs] in a race against death." Both are in turn based on a similar reality: "words," McPherson notes, not only "produce action — they become action."

Consider Grant's field orders in the Champion-Hill campaign at Vicksburg (1863): · General Ulysses S. Grant ·

To General Francis P. Blair, Jr.: Move at early dawn toward Black River Bridge. I think you will encounter no enemy by the way. If you do, however, engage them at once.

To General John A. McClernand: The entire force of the enemy has crossed the Big Black. . . . Disencumber yourself of your [supply] trains, select an eligible position, and feel the enemy.

To General James B. McPherson: Pass all trains and move forward to join McClernand with all possible dispatch.

To General William T. Sherman: Start one of your divisions on the road at once with its ammunition wagons. . . . Great celerity should be shown in carrying out the movement. The fight might be brought on at any moment — we should have every man on the field.

As McPherson explains, "[i]n the manner of Ceasar's Veni, vidi, vici, these sentences bristle with verbs of action: 'Move . . . engage . . . disencumber . . . select . . . feel . . . move . . . start.' Grant used few adjectives and fewer adverbs and then only those necessary to enforce his meaning: 'early dawn . . . engage at once . . . move with all possible dispatch . . . great celerity . . . every man.'"

 · Ex-President Ulysses S. Grant · Still more impressive was Grant's final battle against death. Fighting ruin and throat cancer, he rushed to finish his impressive Memoirs with a courageous command of language nowhere better shown than in a note, penned three weeks before his death, to his physician. Unable to speak, he wrote two short sentences every teacher might claim as the paradigmatic truth about verbs:


A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.


That life lesson, too, my own students have already begun to learn.

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Yes, verbs carry action and strength in a sentence, a message reinforced by Strunk & White. What struck me about these orders from Grant, though, was a different quality: crispness.

Posted by
John on February 11, 2005 09:59 PM

I hadn't thought of that one, though I wonder if it's the effect or cause of other marks, like the crisp attire shown to General Grant in concession. At Appomattox, it's interesting to note that General Lee dressed better. To the victor, I suppose, belong all the soils.

Posted by Styles on February 16, 2005 03:07 PM


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