Two Verb Puzzles in the News

By Maeve Maddox

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I suppose I may be exposing my own comprehension failings by writing about two verb uses that puzzled me recently. I’ll just have to take the chance.

In a New York Times article (Jan 3, 2020) about the death of an Iranian military operative, I had to read the following sentence three times before I understood what was being said:

They also say he has masterminded destabilizing Iranian activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at the United States and Saudi Arabia.

My problem focused on the word destabilizing. At the first reading, I took it to be a gerund.

Reminder: Words ending in –ing are verb forms. To function as complete verbs, they must be used with a helping verb. Used alone, they can function as different parts of speech. A gerund is an –ing word used as a noun. A gerund can do anything a noun can do. It can function as the subject or complement of a sentence, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition. It can also do things verbs can do, such as take an object.


I thought that destabilizing was the direct object of the verb masterminded. It took me three readings to figure out what the sentence actually says.

First reading
I knew the article was about a man who had made a career of causing trouble for the enemies of Iran. I assumed he would know how to destabilize things. Ergo, my first thought was that he had “masterminded the craft of destabilizing various activities.”

Second reading
But then I saw the adjective Iranian before activities. The man being written about was an Iranian officer. Why would he want to destabilize the activities of his own side?

Third reading
At last, as I read further, the penny dropped. Destabilizing does not function as a gerund here. It functions as an adjective. The man masterminded activities that are still being used on behalf of Iran to destabilize the efforts of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Because I can usually understand articles in the Times without multiple re-readings, I think this sentence is a good example of why writers need to pay attention to the way they use –ing words in long sentences.

As it’s already clear that the man was in the service of Iran, the sentence could have been made shorter and clearer by leaving out the qualifier Iranian and rearranging the words:

They also say he has masterminded activities that continue throughout the Middle East and are aimed at destabilizing the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The other usage that puzzled me is contained in this headline in the Washington Post from the same date:

Minimum wage increases fuel faster wage growth for those at bottom

As I began reading, I perceived increases as a verb, fuel as a noun, and faster as an adverb. I wondered why the wage increases would affect fuel, but then I backed up and realized that increases is a noun and fuel is a verb. Aha. The wage increases are causing wage growth for wage earners at the bottom.

I know, headline writers take wicked pleasure in making readers figure out their creations. Most writers, however, want to make things easy for their readers.

Beware of juxtaposing two words that can be either nouns or verbs.

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3 Responses to “Two Verb Puzzles in the News”

  • Tim Slager

    Your second example reminds me of headlines on display in the restrooms of the (recently closed) Newseum in Washington DC. Those are more than confusing; they are also humorous.

    Example from my hometown newspaper: Plan to deny welfare to immigrants still alive

    Example 2: Actor sent to jail for not finishing sentence

    Example 3: Genetically modified crops talk of meeting

  • Valerie Gorman

    The first example, “destabilising activities” is surely not much different in usage (adjective + noun) from such constructions as speaking roles, riding lanes, mesmerising performances. I would agree that such construction requires a bit of work on the part of the reader but it has much more then connotation of an on-going activity than using a more finite construction.

  • Maeve

    Tim Slager,
    What delicious specimens! I especially love the second one.

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