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Verbs First: Targeting the Crucial Action
We can improve our writing by focusing on any unit of style—from choosing the just-right word to sculpting clauses, sustaining longer sentences with grace, and arranging them in effective paragraphs. Here we will focus on the humble sentence.
Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary war-time leader, credited his strong writing not to learning Latin or Greek, as did the “cleverer boys” of his class, but instead to having “got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence.”
Let’s grasp what Churchill means by the “essential structure” by analyzing this not-so-bad sentence:
The matter was subjected to a thorough investigation conducted by the police.
In the right context, this sentence may not need improvement, and it is certainly not ungrammatical. But as a stand-alone sentence without any context to plead its case, it could use some work.
Let’s apply what Joseph Williams called a “Golden Rule of Great Writing” (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace): Identify the crucial action, and make it the main verb.
The main verb is “was subjected,” but we know it does not express the crucial action because it is incomplete: we find ourselves asking, “Well, the matter was subjected to what?”
Maybe the crucial action is in the other verb, “conducted.” That one is more promising. We could look for the agent (the actor, or doer) of the conducting: “the police.”
Make Passive Verbs Active
One improvement is to make the doer of the action its subject: “The police conducted a thorough investigation . . . .” Here we have changed the passive voice to the active voice. (Read more about passive and active voice in a separate article on this site.)
But what did they conduct? An investigation. And an investigation of what? “The matter.” Let’s put those ideas together and ask if we’ve improved the sentence:
The police conducted a thorough investigation of the matter.
We’ve eliminated “was subjected,” a phrase that contributes nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Brevity without loss of meaning almost always improves writing, and this revision has improved the original.
But can we improve it further?
Identify Verbs Hidden in Nouns
We now have a good main verb, “conducted,” but does it express the most important action?
In our effort to write well, we should query nouns that could be verbs to see if these bloated nominalizations may be disguising svelte verbs.
In our sentence, the noun “investigation” is worth querying: what is its verb form? “Investigate.”
Between “conduct” and “investigate,” which verb expresses the more important—the crucial—action of the sentence?
In some sentences, the verb “conduct” would certainly express the crucial action, as in these sentences:
- Water conducts electricity much better than rubber.
- Maestro Mehta conducted the LA Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth.
But our sentence is stronger when the crucial action—“investigating”—is the main verb:
The police investigated the matter thoroughly.
We can also tell that “investigated” expresses the crucial action much better than “conducted” because with “conducted” as our main verb, we still need the direct object—“an investigation”—to complete the thought.
Notice that other improvements occur naturally (at least to native speakers of English) when we express the crucial action in the main verb:
- The sentence has shrunk significantly: from twelve to six words.
- The subject (the agent for the action) and the verb appear near each other.
Both changes help us understand the sentence better and read it with less effort than the original requires. Clarity and less effort are two welcomed effects of writing well.
So how can you use this principle to improve your writing?
Review every sentence and ask two questions:
- Have I made the crucial action the main verb?
- Are any of the nouns in the sentence—especially verbs lengthened into nouns (nominalizations)—hiding the best verbs inside them, just as the noun “investigation” hid the verb “investigated”?
How might we improve these sentences?
- There has been much work done in these fields, not paid for but by volunteers, so invasive weeds could be eliminated so free food could be grown and given away. [30 words]
- If by noon nothing remarkable has been sensed, there will be no reason to keep the sensors on or to expect any adjusting of their sensitivity by our overworked technicians to sense anything significant. [34 words]
- Rapid rates of debt-financed asset accumulation were broad-based during the 1980s, with swift increases of household income but an even faster growth of household expenditures and a steep drop-off of household saving rates. [32 words] *
- Volunteers, not paid workers, worked to rid these fields of invasive weeds so they could grow food and give it away. [21 words]
- If the sensors have not reported anything remarkable by noon, our overworked technicians should not adjust them but turn them off. [22 words]
- Note: Sometimes when we revise for greater clarity, we don’t reduce the number of words much and are willing to make two sentences out of one, as in this revision: During the 1980s, households accrued debt to accumulate a wide range of goods rapidly. Household income increased swiftly, but spending increased more quickly while rates of household saving dropped steeply. [30 words]
* Condensed from Alan Greenspan’s Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress : Testimony before the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy of the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, February 19, 1992. https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/title/452/item/8469 , p. 6. Accessed 9 April 2019.