In mid-July 1885, during the last weeks of his life, as Ulysses S. Grant worked to finish his Personal Memoirs, he scratched out a pencil-written note to one of his doctors. This piece of “pencil talk” captured Grant’s state of mind at the moment but also demonstrated the sophisticated understanding of language he had come to. Not until the May of that year, really, did he ever begin to think of himself as “a writer,” but when the realization came, he embraced it fully.
“The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun,” we wrote in that mid-July note. “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer. I signify all three.”
It’s a curious quote, often misunderstood because of the word “suffer.”
First, some background for folks who aren’t writing nerds like me. A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun, and a personal pronoun specifically takes the place of a person’. “I,” “me,” “we,” “you,” and “them” would be examples. They denote person (first, second, or third), gender (male or female), and number (singular/plural).
A verb is an action word. It’s what’s going on in a sentence. I’ve always contended that verbs are the most important words in a sentence because they drive the action.
At the time he self-identified as a verb, Grant was dying of terminal throat cancer. By all accounts, it was excruciating. To combat the pain, he submitted to cocaine swabbings of the back of his mouth and throat, but that created problems of its own because Grant felt the cocaine’s addictive pull. When he’d start to jones too badly, he’d stop the treatments, but the pain would flare up so intensely that he would have to accept another treatment.
“I am undoubtedly sinking gradually,” he wrote to his son, Fred, around the same time he called himself a verb. “I feel that I am growing weaker all the time.”
This cycle of suffering creates a sublime context for Grant’s comment about being a verb—but it also confuses the matter. Consider: “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; to suffer.” However, a verb does not, by its nature, signify physical suffering, which is what Grant’s quote seems to suggest. People sometimes tend to impose that meaning because, of course, Grant was in pain, but at best, it’s a tortured reading because even though it doesn’t make sense, it seems to make sense because of the physical suffering.
To better understand the quote, swap out “suffer” for “tolerate,” which helps clarify Grant’s meaning. When he says “to suffer,” he does not mean physical suffering but, rather, the act of passively submitting to action imposed him. He’s suffers, he tolerates, he submits, he is acted upon. One can be, one can do, and one can have done unto. That’s what Grant means in this context as a verb.
 PUSG 31:394.