For the love of verbs

It may seem an odd thing to name a favourite part of speech. They’re all necessary, aren’t they? It would be like saying, ‘My favourite position in football is striker,’ or ‘My favourite ingredient in chocolate cake is cocoa.’ Although editing is as much about the game as the individual players, as much about the cake as the ingredients, I find that in fiction writing I am engaged by verbs and in corporate writing I often reinstate verbs to give them back their power.

In fiction

One thing I love about verbs is how quickly they can capture an image and convey it to a reader.

Take this example:

Ron had to leave. All the aunts and uncles begged him to stay, but he slowly extricated himself from the lounge chair, made his way into the kitchen where he left his cup and saucer on a bench, then out to the passageway. Some of the aunts followed him, and the uncles, having risen more slowly, took the shortcut from the lounge room out to the front door. Ron put his hand on the doorknob and turned as his relatives bottlenecked behind him, all reaching for a kiss or a handshake or shoulder clap. He opened the door a wedge, squeezed through and burst out into the sunlight.

In this piece the word ‘bottlenecked’ evokes the sensations of crowding together into a narrowing space, and of still more people coming from behind, adding to the pressure that results in Ron ‘bursting’ out of the house.

Another example comes from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The main character, Tony, is describing his teenage years and how his parents and those of his friends repeatedly warned them about the dangers of drugs and peer group pressure and of getting girls pregnant, when they can barely hope to have girls look at them and are getting up to none of the shenanigans their parents are worried about. He says:

‘How far their anxieties outran our experiences.’

The verb ‘outran’ here evokes two streams of action: the one that is actually happening in the lives of the boys, and the one that is happening in the minds of their parents. Had Barnes said, ‘How much worse were their anxieties than our experiences’ (using the verb ‘to be’) the image would have been shapeless and powerless.

In corporate writing

Understanding how verbs work can improve corporate writing too. Although a verb is just one of the links in the chain that is a sentence, this part of speech does have some special qualities. To start with, you can have a one-word sentence consisting only of a verb. ‘Run!’

But most sentences consist of at least a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or noun phrase: it’s what we’re talking about; and the verb (marked here in italics) is saying something about the actions or state of that noun.

‘Imogen runs.’

Here ‘Imogen’ is the subject of the sentence.

A subject can be longer than this and include all kinds of other information about Imogen.

‘The girl named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen, whose brother rides a bicycle beside her, runs.’

The problem of long subjects

You can see that subjects can be very long, and a reader can soon feel lost until they get to the bit that tells us what is going on here: the verb. For this reason I like to think of the verb as the pivot in a sentence. All the time we’re reading the subject we’re having to store information in our minds to make sure we can relate it to the verbal pivot that we know is coming up.

This kind of structure is very common in corporate writing:

‘The government committee for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities was disbanded.’

We don’t get to the verb here until close to the very end of a long sentence. It would be an easier sentence to understand if we moved the verb closer to the front:

‘The government disbanded the committee that was for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities.’

(The other problem with this sentence is the passive structure, a topic that deserves its own post.)

The problem of nominalisations

In corporate writing, verbs are often nominalised, or turned into nouns. A weak verb is inserted to replace the strong verb, and the whole sentence is weakened. You can often remove a lot of superfluous words when you trade a weak verb for a strong one.

‘The job of the representative is promotion of our corporate brand.’

Here the verb in the sentence is the weak verb ‘is’. The noun ‘promotion’ is a nominalisation of the strong verb ‘promote’, and this structure requires adding in ‘the job of’, making the whole subject ‘the job of the representative’.

‘The representative promotes our corporate brand.’

Now there is a short subject, ‘the representative’, and a strong verb instead of a weak one. The whole sentence is more succinct.

This isn’t a recommendation to change all sentences in corporate writing to this kind of structure; to do so just introduces a new type of monotonous structure. The variety of structures possible in language is what gives it richness and subtlety. But the problems of long subjects and nominalisations are common in corporate writing and a swing back to shorter structures and strong verbs can only strengthen the communicative power of corporate writing.

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