5 Ways to Set Smothered Verbs Free

By Mark Nichol

Nominalizations are nouns formed from verbs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; various parts of speech are transmogrified into others as part of the process of language. But such creations, colloquially known as smothered verbs, can easily complicate sentences, leading to wordiness and passive construction.

Enable for more dynamic prose by allowing verbs to breathe free. Here’s how to fix such overelaboration:

1. “The companies acted as financial sponsors for the shows featuring their character toys.”

Step one: Find the suffocated verb. Sponsors can be a verb as well as a noun. But only one verb is necessary, so toss out the passive one (and any other extraneous words): “The companies sponsored the shows featuring their character toys.”

2. “The primary focus of this workshop is recent developments in computer scanning.”

The previous sample sentence started out well, but this one’s subject is not the main event. It’s all about the workshop, so let’s start there. For further fixes, remember this rule of thumb: If you can easily excise a verb that is a form of “to be” (often, as in this case, is), do it, because the unsmothered verb will always be stronger than the weak link that is is: “This workshop focuses on recent developments in computer scanning.”

3. “Before the commencement of the program, there was a brunch served for the guests.”

Another weak link is the phrase “of the”; the simple solution is to reverse the order of the words preceding and following this phrase, change the noun to a verb, and ditch the two weak little words: “Before the program commenced, guests were served brunch.”

(Note that I altered the second part of the sentence, too. Yes, I retained were, a form of “to be,” but the idea is to minimize, not eliminate, such verbs; you could write “guests ate brunch,” but though that phrase is more active, it doesn’t mean quite the same thing.)

4. “There was a strong disagreement between the two sides over the estimate of damages.”

Weak sentences frequently have one feature in common: They start with “There is” or “There are.” Again, cut to the chase. Find the real subject and start there: “The two sides disagreed strongly over damage estimates.”

5. “The engineers could not provide an explanation for the malfunction.”

What did the engineers hope to do? What action had they been expected to take? They set out to explain. So say that: “The engineers could explain the malfunction.” Phrases written on the model of “(verb) a/an (noun),” as here (“provide an explanation”) are signs of smothering.

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9 Responses to “5 Ways to Set Smothered Verbs Free”

  • Stephen

    But the engineers could not explain the malfunction.

  • Dylan

    A small typo but nonetheless the article is good. I remember my English teacher forcing us to remove nearly every “be” verb from our essays. Sure it made them sound less weak, but the hours of rearranging sentences and paragraphs.

  • John

    The change in the first sentence is incorrect as they may have been financial sponsers only and not full sponsors (there are often legal liabilities for full sponsors).

    The change to the second sentence makes computer scanning developments the only purpose of the workshop where the original emphasizes that it is a focal point and there are other interests as well.

    Finally, the last example takes the situation form NOT explaining the malfunction to them explaining it. I assume the author of this piece told them what the malfunction was somewhere along the line….

  • Michael

    Says more about engineers than Mark’s penmanship 😉

  • Precise Edit

    A topic near and dear to my heart!

    We read lots of hard-to-understand writing, and one major culprit is nominalized verbs. To the extent possible, we try to changed nominalized verbs into action verbs. The result is writing that is not only easier to understand but also more engaging and vigorous.

    The one place I can tolerate nominalizations is at the end of a sentence. These are very heavy words (perhaps the heaviest), so they make a nice “thump” to give the sentence a sense of completion–when used carefully, purposefully, and sparingly.

    Here’s our take on nominalizations from http://300daysofbetterwriting.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/keep-verbs-as-verbs/

    Words like “eradication,” “utilization,” “usage,” and “transference” sound very fancy. These words are nouns that come from the verbs “eradicate,” “utilize,” “use,” and “transfer,” respectively. The process of changing a verb into a noun is called “nominalization.” Most words ending in –tion, -ment, and -ence/-ance are nominalizations.

    Nominalizations create weak, cumbersome, and pretentious writing. For clear, engaging, and effective writing, revise your sentences to change nominalizations back into action verbs. In many cases, you may be able to remove the word altogether. For example:

    “Our enactment of the plan for the eradication of the disease was a failure.”
    (We failed to eradicate the disease.)

    “There is resentment towards this policy.”
    (Some people resent this policy.)

    “The commencement of the ceremony will be at noon.”
    (The ceremony will commence at noon.)

    Convert nominalizations back into their verb forms and revise the sentence accordingly. Then consider whether the revised sentence says the same thing as the original but in a simpler, more direct manner. In most cases, the revised sentences will be far superior to those laden by nominalizations.

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    I respect your precision and appreciate that you bring up a valid point about being careful not to change a sentence’s meaning when you revise it, but understand that these illustrative examples are necessarily taken out of context and may very well be adjacent to other text that fills in the details.

  • Moira

    Mark,

    Your comment above is exactly the way I took your article.

    I subscribe to Daily Writing Tips. To me, this entry is one of the most useful and instructive posts I’ve received.

    Since writing my first thesis ten years ago, I learnt the importance of writing actively rather than passively; for example, changing ‘have beens’ to more active verbs.

    In the years since, I couldn’t quite work out why at times I could not fully articulate an active voice. This post has illuminated that for me.

    Thank you.

  • Mark Nichol

    Moira:

    Thanks for your note. I hope to provide many more practical posts!

  • A. Colin Flood

    Your clarity is lost in confusion! “Enable for more dynamic prose?” What does that really mean?

    Here it is in plain poor people talk: Allowing your verbs to breathe free creates dynamic prose.

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