Is That a Noun or a Verb? I’m Confused

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The main reason why sentences are confusing is that they are too long. Shorten them and your readers will thank you. But another leading reason for confusing sentences: uncertainty about what part of speech a word is: noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and so on.

Why should I care about parts of , if I’m not a teacher of English grammar? Because, subconsciously, we all do what our English teachers taught us: we diagram sentences. The more complex the sentence, the longer it is, the more likely we are to search for subjects and predicates, just to make sense of the sentence. Who is doing what to whom?

The problem comes when a word can be used as either noun or verb or something else, and we’re not sure at first glance which it is. The reason why that’s a problem is that many sentences don’t get more than a first glance. When we scan, browse, or speed-read, we want to grasp the gist of the sentence right away. We don’t want to have to read it more than once.

Here are examples of the kind of confusing sentences I’m talking about:

The fear that the treasure won’t be his troubles him throughout the film.

When many readers see the phrase “his troubles,” their minds will try to turn it into either the subject or the object of the sentence, which it isn’t. If they see the phrase “his troubles him,” they will really get confused. Both phrases misinterpret the sentence.

Other ways to say it: Throughout the film, he fears that the treasure won’t be his. Throughout the film, he is troubled by fears that the treasure won’t be his.

Because of labor strikes the trains scheduled this afternoon will be delayed.

If you see “labor strikes the trains,” you’ll interpret the sentence as an account of union unrest and riots. If you see “the trains scheduled,” you’ll wonder who is in charge now: violent labor unions or sinister trains with a mind of their own.

Other ways to say it: Because of labor strikes, the trains that were scheduled this afternoon will be delayed. Labor strikes will delay this afternoon’s trains.

To defuse this type of confusing sentence, break the connection between the words that shouldn’t be connected. In the second example, a comma may be all you need to add. In the first example, we need to keep “his” and “troubles” apart.

Some words will always be troublesome. No matter where you put it in the sentence, a word such as “strikes” can be a source of confusion for hasty readers, since it can be both noun and verb. Of course, the shorter the sentence, the quicker your readers can untangle it.

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10 thoughts on “Is That a Noun or a Verb? I’m Confused”

  1. In many cases, finding the rhetorical subject and rhetorical action (which may not be the grammatical subject and predicate) will solve this problem. When these two elements are placed at the beginning of the sentence, the sentences will be less confusing.

    In the “train” example, the sentence is about “trains” (the rhetorical subject) and “will be delayed” (the rhetorical action). Currently, these items are separated by too many other words, and the rhetorical action is at the end of the sentence. Putting these at the start of the sentence gives us:

    “Trains will be delayed this afternoon because of the labor strikes.”

    Applying this advice removes the confusion.

    Applying the advice to the first example gives us:

    He was troubled throughout the film by the fear that the treasure wouldn’t be his.

  2. Do you have any tips on how to identify these problem sentences? Sometimes you don’t have the time to go through every single sentence to see if its verbs and nouns can be mis-interpreted; are there any quick ways to identify these?

    After writing for a while, you’ll probably build up an array of words that are usually troublesome, of course. But until then, I’d like to make sure I don’t inadvertently send my readers down a grammatical cul-de-sac. Especially when writing to non-native English readers this would help.

  3. I like PreciseEdit’s advice. I had never heard the term “rhetorical subject” before. Interesting, though, that by putting the rhetorical subject first, we ended up with passive voice sentences… But sometimes you have to break some rules to follow other rules. The primary rule being, make your meaning clear.

  4. Well let me be frank here (Which, is anyway the reason i am commenting). The writer must be much more proficient in the language than i am. But the first examples used are only
    re-arranged (in the secondth examples) so that a comma or other pauses are used. Which doesnt mean (to me) that the sentences arent any longer.

    Forgive me not, i am only trying to learn something here 🙂

  5. One of my biggest peeves is something like this. A phrase like “It was all that He could do to keep himself from retching on the floor” just BUGS me. When there is subject verb confusion it jars my reading. Of course, I have come to understand a sentence like that, but I still do not like it!

    (I’ve come to like this blog in a short amount of time! I’ll be checking this out regularly.)

  6. Ironic, isn’t it, that confusing sentences can sometimes become less confusing if you add a comma or an extra word. You’re right that these examples aren’t very long – I didn’t want them to be too confusing!

    Cutting sentences in half brings the greatest benefits when they are overly long, but if you wanted to, you could simplify the examples like this:

    Throughout the film, he fears that the treasure won’t be his. The thought troubles him.

    Be aware of schedule changes for this afternoon’s trains. Because of labor strikes, they may be delayed.

  7. I’m confused with this paradox I read:

    In Seville there is a barber. He shaves every man in Seville, who does not shave himself.

    In other words there should be only two conclusions:

    1 If a man shaves himself then the barber does not shave that man.

    2 If the barber shaves a man then the man does not shave himself.

    The paradox arises when you consider who shaves the barber.
    If the barber (who is a man) shaves himself then the barber should not shave himself. If the barber does not shave himself then the barber should shave himself.

  8. You advise people to throw in a comma? You can’t just throw a comma into a sentence wherever you please. There has to be a comma rule to accommodate its usage, or else it’s simply wrong.

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