Writing 101: “I think I am a verb”

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.

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[1] Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (PUSG) 31:441. (available online here)

[2] PUSG 31:394.

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8 Responses to Writing 101: “I think I am a verb”

  1. Appreciated your article. First time I heard this quote. If we set aside the word “suffer” because of Grant’s circumstances, isn’t this simply advice to be a person of action. Get it done!

  2. Kevin C. Donovan says:

    You win – you made me look up “to jones.”

    • I just skipped over “jones” thinking I understood the context, so, I too now have looked it up: a fixation on or compulsive desire for someone or something, typically a drug; an addiction.

  3. Robert Houston says:

    For comparison, see Jesus’s saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” in the King James version of the Bible.

  4. Speaking of writing 101…I wonder how Chris Mackowski deals with writer’s block?

  5. Robert Houston says:

    An additional thought. Cf. Buckminster Fuller’s book, “I Seem to Be a Verb,” (perhaps cribbed from Grant) which contains this line: “I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing–a noun . . . I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process–an integral function of the universe.” Surely this isn’t precisely what Grant had in mind, but it applies nonetheless. But great men like Grant and Fuller are, of course, irregular verbs, not conforming to the usual rules.

  6. Ben says:

    I have been misinterpreting this quote for decades. Thank you for the instruction.

  7. Hugh De Mann says:

    His comments, when he knew the end of his life were near, make me reflect on how many other soldiers/figures whom have endured trauma, have espoused similar thoughts and sentiments when they knew, or suspected, life to be drawing to a close.

    How when Officer Crook and Abraham Lincoln, whom had spent much time together during the war, espoused their infamous conversation on 14 April 1865 while walking to/from the White House and Telegraph Office and Lincoln bespoke his thoughts that he would soon be assassinated; and that evening, when leaving for the Theatre, when Officer Crook said, ‘Goodnight, Mr. President’, instead of replying, ‘Goodnight, Crook’, as he had countless times, Lincoln instead replied, ‘Goodbye, Crook’.

    The examples are endless. Persons who have lived a life of trauma and who have knowledge or belief they are going to die, must have a particular outlook as the end draws near.

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