A verbal is a verb that has morphed into either a noun or a modifier. Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives are verbals. They have much in common with verbs, but they can’t operate alone as a verb in a sentence. Examples:
“To Laugh” is the infinitive form of “laugh.”
“Laughing” is my favorite pastime. In that sentence, “Laughing” is used as a noun (gerund).
Bad grammar might make you the “laughing” stock of your friends. Here, “laughing” is used as an adjective (participle). An adverbial form of the verb would be “laughingly.” Etc.

Choose any common verb and write a dramatic skit using as many verbal forms of a common verb as you can.

The skit should tell a complete (but brief) story.





Sounds in both words and music rely on timing to achieve emotional effect. For instance, increased speed in music offers increased excitement, just as shorter sentences heighten an emotional effect in speech. A rise in the pitch of speech increases tension. So does a rise in tone or melody. Ultimately we achieve “meaning” through rhythmic recognition as much as through language. Repetition of words helps us perceive the essence of words independent of what they mean.

THE EXERCISE: Chant with words that have referential meaning

Write a fugue without music.

The object is to braid rhythms by using repeated phrases and words with referential meaning and to simultaneously create a scene, anecdote, or story. The story may simply depict a situation or a conflict between three or more voices. Choose a subject or category (grocery shopping, the Rocky Mountains, waiting tables, tropical fish, etc); Choose names or phrases that help to illustrate your topic. Restrict yourself. Separate names into one-, two-, three-, and four-syllable words; Choose certain phrases or whole sentences that help further the plot or advance the examination of your topic. Using augmentation, stretto, diminution -techniques of the fugue form- arrange a chant for at least three speaking parts.

VARIATION ON SAME EXERCISE: Chant for abstract words.
The object is to create an ensemble using vowels and consonants in rhythms that hint at the power of meaning beyond words. Be aware of the alchemy of vowels, the emotional differences achieved by the short sounds, long, diphthong sounds of a, e, i, o, u . Keep in mind the different emotions conveyed by gutturals, sibilants, aspirants, fricatives, and affricatives.





A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, idea, or state of being.

THE EXERCISE: The No-Noun Challenge

If we imagine a language without nouns, we have to imagine an alternate reality. Gertrude Stein believed that we can express subjects and objects perfectly well (and celebrate their kinetic powers) without nouns. Take the word moon. How would we say it without using its noun form? We might convey its essence this way: ” round silvery upon airy dark.”

Write an advertisement using no nouns in such a way that you make the product discernible.

Exercise: Proper Nouns and Crowned Nouns
What is a proper noun? It’s someone’s name or the formal name of a place (Mary Smith, Harvard University). What is a “crowned” noun? It’s when you take a name and embue it with some extraordinary characteristic or further distinction, like “Alexander the Great” or “Popeye the Sailor Man.” Here are two inventive results of students playing with proper nouns (to produce a skit) and with a crowned noun to produce a song. You can make your own list of “names in the news” and think about how you might “crown” them. OR you might take an ordinary name and, through repetition, make an interesting monolog or skit about it.




There have been two major trends that have changed and threatened language. The first is the nominalizing of the verb, making it material and categorical (Example: That book was a good read). The second is the use of passive voice for deliberate obfuscation (Example: The truth was softened by me). In most cases, the use of passive voice is objectification. It changes the subject of a sentence into an object, and it conceals or may even bury the doer and receiver. The result is often evasion, deliberate ambiguity, even absurdity. Just listen to a politician dodge a direct question by implementing passive voice.

THE EXERCISE: Passive Satire

Write a skit for two or more speakers in which the speakers are discussing a significant topic or addressing a physical situation (making a turkey dinner, changing a tire, responding to a traffic accident, etc.). Use only passive voice constructions. The results should be outrageously convoluted. The more serious or urgent the topic of conversation, the more ridiculous passive verbs will make it seem.





Meaning in language is not conceived apart from tone and rhythm. It is conceived in them. Song is the ultimate unity of words and tone and rhythm. Melody is to music what plot is to story.

THE EXERCISE: Word Composition to Instrumental Music-Solo, Spoken not Sung

The purpose of the exercise is to coordinate rhythms and write words to music. Pick a tuneful instrumentation (not simply percussive, but with strong melodic base) in the public domain. Find the music first, although you may conceive your idea before you choose the music. Nevertheless, listening to the music may inspire some fresh idea. You may choose to parody the music , writing words that are incongruous to the musical idea, or you may want to implement or enhance the musical idea. You may find a way to tell an entire story during the course of the musical selection. The words you use may be sense or nonsense, but they should fit the measured beat. Sometimes you may want to vary the word rhythm with the rhythm of the melodic line and write against beat. But what you write should be performed exactly the same way, perfectly measured, matching syllables to beat each time you perform it. The words should be spoken not sung, although sometimes, depending on the performer, this rule gets tossed.




The verb is kinetic. It is pure energy, and people respond to energy as moths to light. The verb either acts or is. We see action and being as proof of life. Movement satisfies as objects do not. If we don’t know what we are or what we ought to do, at least we feel that we are and do. We even die. The grammar of ourselves may exist without any other parts of speech. But it has to have the verb. Without the verb, we cannot exist.



Person: First, second, third

Number: Singular, plural

Tense: Present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect (pluperfect), future perfect

Voice: Active, passive

Moods: Indicative, subjunctive, progressive or continuous, emphatic, imperative

Types: Declarative, interrogative, imperative

Conditional helping verbs: can, may, might, could, would, should

Obligation helping verbs: can, may, might, could, would, should


SYNOPSIS example of a typical verb’s chief parts:

To take (infinitive), took (past tense), taken (past participle)


Simple and past tense verbs may be expressed with a one-word verb, but all other tenses require a helping verb. For example, you show future by adding will or shall. You use a helping combination formed of the verb to be to show continuous action. For example, “I am going; I was going; I will be going.” And it takes helping verbs to to make the passive voice where the subject is acted upon. Example, “The paper was stolen.”

Loose verb story
Choose three or four common verbs. Add a preposition after each. Make a series that forms a plot. Use no other parts of speech except the verb and its proposition.


Subject-verb monologue, dialogue, or chorus
Choose two or three verbs. Then either: (A) Create a soliloquy or monologue, limiting yourself to the subject and different variations of the verb. If you need to, use an object or an adverbial conjunction, but limitation will produce the most interesting results. Or (B) Create two or three characters or groups of characters speaking to (or against) each other. You may have them argue in the manner or town meetings or demonstrations. Limit yourself to subject-verb constructions, although you may use the odd conjunction or two, or an infinitive.


Mini Grammar Lesson:  Conjunctions and Interjections
A conjunction  is a word used to connect words, phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Coordinating conjunctions  ( and, or nor, but, and yet) serve as links between events. Subordinating conjunctions  ( although, because, as, if, than, that, and while) introduce condition and cause. Correlative conjunctions are words used in pairs to connect sentence elements of equal grammatical rank ( Both…and; not only…but also; either…or; neither…nor; as…ass; and whether…or).

An interjection is an exclamatory word or phrase used independently in a sentence. Examples: Ah! Wow! Alas and alack! Hurrah! Abracadabra! Holy moly!

Conjunctive-Interject exercise:

Write a poem or a dialogue using no words except: 1) interjections 2) conjunctions 3) interrogative or demonstrative pronouns 4) conjunctive adverbs



Does sound have meaning? We feel that it does, but often it’s hard to explain. Music and speech are both sound. But whereas words have literal meaning, music conveys emotion and ideas of a different order. Is there such a thing as “universal meaning” in sound? For instance, do certain vowels and certain consonants mean the same thing throughout the world? The consensus among linguists is no, and yet some do not allow the possibility completely. Onomatopoeia seems often to be universal. Check out the sound of a dog barking in four languages: gavgav (Greek), bow-wow (English), wang-wang (Japanese), and mongmong (Korean). It has been suggested that the short ‘i’ conveys the impression of “littleness, whereas the sound of a broad ‘a’ vowel conveys the idea of something larger, far away, or vast. Devoid of their literal meanings, are some words innately ugly or beautiful, tall or short? Which of the following words sound ugly or beautiful or tall or short to you, regardless of their meanings? Shrub, blunder, lackadaisical, latitude, perpendicular, tweet, Eldorado? How far can we divorce words from their true meanings for comic or creative effect?

Exercise: Word Improvisation

Choose a word that may have intrinsic interest because of its sound. Or it may be banal but obtain interest in its incongruous application. Write a dialogue or short paragraph improvising on the word. Be sensitive to allusions, associations, puns, and the musical possibilities of the word. A framework, situation, or gimmick will help.

Example: “Smarmy”

Betty: Jean! What a great outfit! I love the color on you!

Jean: Betty? Oh, thank you!

Betty: Smarmy. (She pauses, then speaks a bit louder) Smarmy.

Jean: What?

Betty: You look positively…smarmy.

Jean: Wow! Nobody ever said I looked smarmy before, Betty. Especially somebody with your good taste and ability to accessorize so splendidly.

Betty: (with conviction) You not only look smarmy, Jean, I’d go so far as to say you are smarmy!

Jean: (squealing with delight) Oooh! (so excited she can’t stand still). Oh, Betty! Thank you! You can’t mean it. Really? Oh, but thank you!

Exercise: Noises and Speech

Choose a sound or noise. What consonants and vowels describe it best? This question involves onomatopoeia—the formation of words that imitate sounds, like “buzz” and “hiss.” Your challenge is to come up with a poem or a paragraph or a collection of words that evoke the sound you are attempting to write down, without using onomatopoeia.

Example: The sound of biting into and chomping a mouthful of apple: Czechoslovakia!

Exercise: Musicalizing a Speech
Choose a speech or famous passage, poem, prayer, or nursery rhyme. It must be well-known to the point of cliché. Practice sounding it out on a musical instrument (preferably on a wind instrument) and emphasizing its rhythms and intonations. Use a kazoo if you have no access to an instrument—they work well! Try to avoid consonants and stress the ups and downs, pauses, vowel sounds, and tone in a melodic imitation of speech. OR: Write a skit between two contrasting personalities and types of people (Republican vs. Democrat, teacher vs. student, happy person vs. sad person, etc.) and have one character speak his or her lines using the kazoo and the other have the conversation normally. Watch the videos included here for examples.


There are EIGHT parts of speech: adjective, adverb, conjunction, interjection, noun, preposition, pronoun, and verb.
Exercise: Parts of Speech Essay
Write a little essay, classifying each part of speech in whatever concrete way that appeals to you. That is, create an analogy or extended metaphor for the parts of speech.


Singular and plural nouns and pronouns are the most common possessors; the possessive case of most nouns is usually formed by adding an apostrophe or an apostrophe plus s. The preposition of can be incorporated in a phrase that also indicates possession ( Example: the hat of my mother). The possessive case of singular and plural nouns that do not end in s or z sounds is formed by adding apostrophe s (Example: boy’s toy, men’s yens). A possessive form of singular nouns ending in a sound of z or s is usually formed by adding simply an apostrophe s (Example: boss’s jokes, horse’s tail). If, however, the word is difficult to pronounce, one may streamline with a simple apostrophe (princess’s tresses versus princess’ tresses). If the noun is plural and ends in an s or z sound, one only adds an apostrophe at the end of the word (example: elves’ servitude, consumers’ debt).
Exercise: Possessive Poems or Dialogues
Using possessive forms, write a sketch, a poem, or a dialogue containing “possessed” nouns. You may also show “possession” by use of prepositions.


MINI GRAMMAR LESSON: Sentence Variety and Type
Sentences vary as to type, order, and emphasis. It is the positioning of clauses and phrases that defines this variety. Types: Simple, Compound, Complex, Compound/Complex. Order: Standard, Inverted, Interrupted, Loose, Periodic. Emphasis: Parallelism, Balance, Antithesis, Gradation.

Exercise: Varying Sentences
Write a story, dialogue, scene, anecdote, or stand-up comedy routine in a series of sentences listed below (an example is provided). Every sentence must be a different type. If you write a plot, make it say something interesting or tell something. The cumulative effect of the sentences may express humor, surprise, amusement, or astonishment. Absurd juxtapositions contribute to humor.


Simple: Vince was a cosmonaut.

Compound: He strapped on his superpack and blasted off.

Complex: Vince’s kid brother always wanted to come along, but Vince told him that Bucky was no name for a cosmonaut.

Standard order: Bucky got mad at Vince.

Inverted order: To console himself, he read science fiction books and cried and cried and cried.

Interrupted: Bucky’s life, when he came across a book called Tales of a World-Weary Cosmonaut, the story of Bucky Buckman, a boy who is bullied in grade school and rises to become the greatest cosmonaut in the universe, took a turn for the stupendous.

Loose: When he had finished reading the novel, Bucky realized that his dreams could come true, that he could strap on his very own superpack and blast into outer space, that he could singlehandedly save galaxies from imminent doom, that he could have thousands of beautiful cosmonaut babies with his beautiful cosmonaut girlfriend and endorse all kinds of cosmonaut space produces, while all the while saying proudly, “I am Bucky, the greatest cosmonaut that ever was.”

Periodic: Bucky, having found the strength he needed to believe in himself, having built his own superpack, the best one ever, his name written in Day-Glo letters, and having added some atomic side-jets to the superpack, pushed off.

Parallel: Bucky bucked his way to the top of the cosmonaut food chain; Bucku had balls; Bucky had the biggest balls in the universe.

Balanced: While in outerspace, Bucky saw many kinds of new plants: plants that could inspire poetry, plants that could throw great parties, and plants that could get a lot of girls.

Antithesis: Bucky loved the idea of being a cosmonaut, but he began to love the idea of being a botanist even more.

Gradation: In the end, Bucky realized something big: he realized that he had to do what made him happy; he realized that if he could become the greatest cosmonaut ever, then he could make a damn fine botanist.


The tautological definition of nonsense is the defiance of sense. But nonsense isn’t a linguistics free-for-all. When the idea of cause-and-effect is flaunted, you are in the world of nonsense. In composition, nonsense differs from gibberish in that nonsense follows both phonological and syntactic rules.

Exercise: Write a poem or a paragraph or a sketch in which nonsense words have distinguishable overtones and are embedded in familiar grammatical structures.


The word parody derives from the Greek parodia, meaning a burlesque song or poem. It may be any composition in which the characteristic thoughts or phrases of an author or style of writing (e.g., a government report, religious sermon, scientific report) are mimicked and made to appear ridiculous. The purest parody is accompanied by exaggeration of the most serious features, themes, characters, or atmosphere of a writer. Parody usually means taking the sacrosanct to extreme lengths.

Parody Exercise:

First, make an analysis of the writer (or jargon) you’ve chosen. Consider:
Sentence structure and syntax
Word usage
Figures of speech
Attitudes of ways of thinking and perceiving


Next, write a brief parody of a writer you hate or love but one who has a pronounced style. Use a specific situation related to the themes, characters, and plot characteristics of your author. The parody will work best is you keep your author’s content in mind. Your theme and plot should be similar to the author’s—or absolutely incongruous.



Gone are the days when writers used the dialect writing of Joel Chandler Harris and Kipling. Faulkner, McCullers, Welty, and O’Connor achieve perfect Southern dialect without apostrophes. They do it with syntax and occasional offbeat spelling. Rhythms of sentences can accomplish accents, and make better sense when performed than in print. The challenge of mimicking a language is similar to the challenges of writing nonsense. First, the majority of the words must be recognizable as should the order of syntax. To concoct a fake language, one needs to listen to tapes of native speakers for a while in order to note characteristic sounds and cadences.
Exercise: Improvising a Foreign Language
Write a dialogue with two, three or more characters who speak a chosen fake language that you do not know at all, but a language you have listened to thoroughly. Make something happen in the skit—the action should have a goal. We ought to be able to guess the language and we ought to be able to understand the situation or plot. The purpose of the assignment is to communicate something not flummox the listener.



The following are based on Exercises found in Gram-o-Rama: Breaking the Rules.

Jargon Melody: Take jargon wherever you find it (income tax form, instruction manual, courtroom deposition, medicine bottle directions, etc.) and put it rhythmically to music in an interesting (even disturbing or incongruous) way.

Verb Conjugation Exercise: Put a verb through its paces to make a specific point. You can write a monologue or a chorus involving other speakers.

Sentence Structure Chorale without Music Exercise:

Overheard Conversation Exercise:

Sonnet Exercise:



Communication Through Gesture:


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