One of my goals in life is to help anyone who writes realize that verbs are their best friend. Not nouns, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions. Not alliteration, similes or metaphors.
Verbs! They are your best friend for three reasons:
- They give sentences power.
- They make you sound confident.
- They keep sentences simple.
And yet we often do the same thing to verbs that we do to our family and friends — try to make them something they’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to change someone else. (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand.) Raise your hand if it worked. (Both hands remain by my side.)
How do we try to change verbs? By turning them into nouns. We write things like, “We provide advice on tax structuring” instead of “We advise on tax structuring.” We say we “act in consultation with local firms” rather than we “consult with local firms.” And we “assist with the preparation of distribution agreements” instead of “preparing distribution agreements.”
When I was editing more than 100 office and practice group descriptions for the launch of our firm’s new website, I lost track of the number of times I turned noun phrases back into their original verb form. That’s how pervasive this problem is. The good news is it’s easy to fix once you’re aware of it.
Many words start life as strong, healthy verbs. Words like advise, consult, determine, develop, identify, implement, integrate, notify, prepare, provide and separate. Yet over time we have converted them into nouns, particularly in legal and business writing, creating wordy, overly formal phrases like this:
we determine → we aid in the determination of
we develop → we assist with the development of
we identify → we assist with the identification of
we implement → we aid in the implementation of
we integrate → we help with the integration of
we notify → we aid in the notification of
we provide → we aid in the provision of
we separate → we assist with the separation of
I should note that turning verbs into noun phrases is grammatically correct. And in some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the noun form of a verb, such as in phrases like “the separation of church and state.” But in the context I’m talking about, it’s just not strong writing to use a noun when you could tap into the power of a verb instead.
It’s like when you talk a friend into changing some aspect of their behavior you don’t like, and even when they do, you get the sense they’re only doing it for your benefit. The modification is not coming from their own desire to change, but from their desire to avoid further disapproval. They become stilted, watered-down versions of themselves. The same thing happens to verbs.
“Verbs are the most important part of any sentence,” writing consultant Paddy O’Connor explains in a proposal-writing guide he developed for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “The more verbs you use (especially active verbs), the more persuasive your writing and the more confident you sound. When your writing is packed with heavy noun phrases based on a verb, any power your writing might have had is trapped beneath these smothered verbs.”
When you take this passive approach to writing, you are not only smothering verbs, but also making your sentences longer than they need to be. Doing this once or twice may be fine, but paragraph after paragraph of long-winded sentences makes for arduous reading and you run the risk that readers will stop reading.
“Abstract nouns don’t just suck the life out of your writing, they are also the main reason your sentences are so long,” O’Connor writes. “Every time you turn a simple verb into a noun phrase you need to find another verb to support it.”
What he means is that when you turn the verb “prepare” into the noun phrase, “the preparation of” you have to add another verb to the sentence because “prepare” is no longer a verb.
For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, “we prepare employee visas.” But if you change “prepare” to a noun, you can’t say, “we the preparation of employee visas.” You must add another verb so the sentence makes sense, such as, “we assist with the preparation of employee visas.” Now your sentence is eight words instead of four.
Why use more words than you need to?
My guess is that people think it sounds more professional or respectful to use formal phrases like “with the preparation of.” Yet when you think about it, what’s unprofessional or disrespectful about saying, “We prepare employee visas”?
It’s a simple, clear, direct sentence. My hunch is that clients would welcome sentences like this because they are quicker to read and easier to understand.
So here’s the rule: if the root of a noun is a verb, stick with the verb. You do not provide guidance, you guide. You do not aid in the development of corporate compliance programs, you develop corporate compliance programs. You do not assist in the notification of government agencies, you notify them.
Let’s practice with the following sentence:
We would be delighted to assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.
Which verb got turned into a noun?
Answer: “integrate.” As in, “We would be delighted to assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.
How do we change this back into the original verb?
We would be delighted to help you integrate the acquired entity.
Did you lose any sense of decorum? No, you sound like one human being talking to another using proper English.
Let’s try another one:
Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.
Which verb got turned into a noun?
Answer: “implement.” As in, “Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.”
How do we change this back to the verb form?
Addressing people issues is critical to successfully implementing any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post–transaction integration or restructuring.
Now your sentence has momentum. Someone is doing something instead of someone being engaged in the doing of something. Much better.
I realize it may take a while to get the hang of this, and it may feel uncomfortable to use simple, direct language. Rest assured that after writing this way for awhile, it will feel like second nature. Before you know it, you and verbs will have become best friends.
Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.