Posts tagged with “action verbs”

Episode 9: Shun the tion Words


Those zombie, empty nouns that don’t stand for any real thing—how do they creep into our writing?

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Full Transcript

Last week I talked about how much our writing is strengthened when we replace abstract subjects with concrete ones capable of actually performing actions, and then use those actions as our primary verbs.

Next week, we’ll look at some strategies for doing that. But first, let’s talk about what those abstract nouns are called, and how they arise. This will help us understand which ones are the worst offenders. Then we’ll know how to tell which ones to leave alone.

Page 1: The Dreadful Word Nominalization Stands for a Dreadful Thing.

Those abstract nouns that find their way into subject and object positions have a technical name among linguists: they’re called nominalizations. That is, they’re some word that’s normally not a noun, but been turned into one.

There are three parts of speech that get nominalized: adverbs, adjectives, verbs.

The nominalizations that wreak the worst havoc on writing are the verbs, so we’ll save them for last, and deal with the easy ones first.

Rarest and also least troublesome are adverbs. You’ve heard me use a nominalized adverb at least once if you’ve listened to all the episodes of Word Shots. In episode 6, I said that writers often get in trouble because they’ve “never clarified the why at all.” In that sentence, I’ve nominalized the adverb why. Most uses of a nominalized adverb are like this one; the writer is asking you to take a close look at that adverb either as a word or as a concept, and so it gets treated as a noun. If the writer’s dealing with it as a concept, there may be no way to make it less abstract than it is. But notice that I used it as object, not as subject. The subject is the writer, the one who must deal with the concept, who must look closely at the reasons behind his or her opus, “the why”. So the sentence still has the elements of story: an agent, the writer; and an action, in this case an action not taken, that of defining why he or she is writing.

If, in your reading, you give up on an author when you find such a usage, it’s probably because you disagree with their entire premise; you don’t believe that the adverb-as-subject is worth studying. Your reason for quitting is less likely to be that this way of using the adverb is unclear or distasteful to you.

Adjectives are nominalized more often than adverbs. They can be a little more troublesome, but not too much so. A nominalized adjective names a state or condition, and we’re actually quite used to thinking about those. For example, we often think about conditions such as happiness or sadness. These are nominalized forms of the adjectives happy and sad. The reason they’re not distressingly abstract is that we usually don’t think of them as separate from some actual being. Instead, we normally picture a happy or sad person, or perhaps an animal. And usually, the writer who uses one of these abstractions gives us some context that helps us choose the right thing to visualize.

Last week I used the sample sentence “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.” That’s an extreme case of the writer supplying plenty of context. Although the nominalized adjective sadness was in the subject position, the rest of the sentence invited the reader not only to picture it as belonging to a person, but to a very specific person. On the website, I included a picture of Woolf, who even when young and well-featured, gave the impression that she wasn’t fully out in the world where she was being depicted, but was inside herself hunting desperately for something she’d lost.

Aesop's fablesWe humans have a long tradition of telling stories to illustrate how human traits and conditions work themselves out, how they have predictable, if not inevitable, consequences. We see this illustrated in the fables attributed to Aesop, in which an abstract moral statement is turned into a story, and vice-versa.

So, we’ve dealt with nominalized adverbs and adjectives They don’t present a very thorny problem, which is why Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, doesn’t deal with them at all in his otherwise excellent treatment of nominalizations.

Page 2: Nominalized Verbs Are the Worst.

But that leaves us with the nominalizations formed from verbs. These are the ones that most often make for dreadful prose, the ones that too often burden academic writing.

There are three ways to nominalize a verb in English: the first is by adding a suffix, the second is by making no change at all, but simply using the verb as if it were a noun, and the third is by leaving the spelling unchanged but altering the pronunciation.

Let’s look at examples.

1: Using a suffix:

Difficult becomes difficulty by adding y.

Discern becomes discernment by adding m-e-n-t.

Move and announce become movement and announcement in the same way.

Fail becomes failure by adding u-r-e.

Refuse becomes refusal by adding a-l (after dropping the silent e).

And nominalize becomes nominalization by dropping the silent e and adding -ation. This tion-form is all too common in academic writing, where we see far too much of:

  • sensation
  • depiction
  • formation
  • investigation

and oh, the list is far too long.

The other two ways of nominalizing a verb I’ll cover very briefly.

2. There can be no change at all; I just used an example: change is a verb but I used it, unaltered, as a noun. The same is done with the verbs answer, reply, murder, hope, and return. Many of these verbs-turned-nouns are so frozen in our language that often we don’t notice them.

Compare “she didn’t reply” to “she made no reply”. A careful editor may prefer the first in many cases, but few readers will balk at the second and think “you used reply as a noun!” In most cases, this is because only the philologists and linguists among us even know whether it was the noun that came first or the verb.

3. Finally, there are those cases in which spelling is unchanged, but pronunciation is changed.

For example, use becomes use when it’s nominalized.

If you use your fork well, your host will appreciate your proper use of it.

In many cases, the change is only in accenting. This is common in two-syllable words whose second syllable is accented when the word is a verb, but in which the accent moves when the word is nominalized.


Increase becomes increase: When crop yields increase, there’s also an increase in happiness.

Insert becomes insert: Please insert the insert after page 40.

Import becomes import: When I import a car, the government wants me to pay a tax in the import.

In word-pairs like these, the normal pattern is that stress rises in the verb form (increase), and falls in the noun (increase).

And that covers how nominalizations are formed. Now…

Page 3: Your Turn: Are Some Nominalizations Worse Than Others?

Here’s where I want to turn things over to you. Help me puzzle out a few things about nominalizations.

Such as…

One kind of verb nominalization I didn’t mention is the common gerund, the noun ending in -ing. I’m pretty sure it causes a lot less stumbling to readers than the words that end in -tion. Why might this be? What do you think?

Although I haven’t responded in the podcast to all the questions and opinions I’ve gotten, I really appreciate the feedback I’ve been getting. And I’d love to hear or read yours. Here are the ways you can get your questions and opinions to me:

If you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, you can rate it and write a review there. And in your review, you can respond to a specific episode if you choose. You can make comments on the show’s website, at It’s set up as an ordinary blog, so you can comment on the post for each episode. You can email us at That’s If you email, you can attach a voice comment of up to three minutes and 5 megabytes. Finally, one more way to leave a voice message is by Skype, where our user ID is word.shots. I really look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any topic related to Word Shots, but my special question for this week is: Are gerunds less bothersome to read than -tion-formations, and why or why not?

Let me know what you think!

How to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.

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Word Shots 8: Strong Writing Grows From a Kernel of Story

Even if you’re producing expository prose, the key to strong writing is story. All you need is an entity and an action.

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Full Transcript:

The following may or may not describe your experience with Word Shots. But I’d guess it’s true to at least someone’s experience:

You want to know how to write strongly. I’ve assured you that good theory can help you get there. But now you’re seven episodes into his podcast and you haven’t seen your prose improve in any remarkable way. Last week I talked about ritualization, but I didn’t really explain what it is, and you’re finding it hard to do anything with the concept. Before that I talked about why you write. But you were already pretty good at working out why you write each thing you write, and you always aimed at recruiting and empowering your audience. You’d like to hear something that will really improve your writing.

Very well. It’s time to descend from the heights of abstraction and get down to where pen meets paper.

Page 1: Our First Look at Structure: The Story Kernel

There’s a skill that too many writers lack. This skill is far easier to learn than grammar, far more quickly cultivated than a rich vocabulary. But too few writers have studied with teachers who teach it.

The skill I’m talking about is structure.

If you really want to empower your audience to take in and benefit from what you write, you need to understand that each member of your audience possesses a human brain, and that the human brain is wired to respond to certain kinds of things. Understanding what the mind likes to respond to will help you structure your writing so as to make a maximum impact.

I hope the next thing I say won’t be too obvious. I’m afraid the reason for much of the bad writing we see is that people consider this fact so, obvious that it’s not worth anyone’s attention. But in fact, because it’s so important, and so neglected, I’m going to say it three times:

People respond to stories.

People respond to stories.

People respond to stories.

Of course, not everybody neglects this; if you’re one of those who gets it, please stick around. Maybe together we can work out the most potent way of converting those around us to the gospel of story, because many writers and speakers do neglect it. I think different people have different reasons for this neglect.

Perhaps many fiction writers think it’s all just too obvious. They’re writing fiction; why do they need me to tell them to be sure to write a story? It’s like telling somebody you see running to be sure to get some exercise today.

And non-fiction writers may think: “I’m not here to write a story. I’m writing expository, not narrative prose. If I wanted to write stories I’d become a fiction writer or a journalist.”

Promising I won’t neglect the fiction writers forever, for this episode I’m just going to address the others.

What expository writers need to understand is that story is the kernel of good writing. I choose the word kernel for two reasons: 1: It’s at the heart of good writing. 2: The smallest version of story is a very tiny thing indeed. It consists of nothing but an entity and an action.

At its smallest, story structure is even smaller than sentence structure. For example, listen to this:

“Gusts, hot, dusty gusts off the Sonoran Desert…”

Those eight words aren’t even a whole sentence. And yet they contain both of the two elements of story: entity and action.

Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349

Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There isn’t even a verb, which is why, syntactically, it isn’t a complete sentence. But there’s a noun, gusts, which packs a verb inside itself, which comes armed with action. The heat can be felt, and the dust even makes it visible.

And that’s what people respond to. Entities and actions. Things and change.

Again, this is so obvious that I’m feeling the need to prove that writers ever neglect it.

For that proof, I’m going to refer to last week’s episode, in which a large, pale creature tried and failed to execute a courtship move on a princess in a comic book shop.

Page 2: Why We Don’t Understand Ritual

In discussing that story, I used the word ritualization. The word has been haunting me for years, since I learned it in a course in interpersonal communications I took as an undergrad at Northwestern. I felt it was poorly defined, but also that it was a very important concept, and I’ve been struggling to come to grips with it ever since. Every once in a while I reach out for help. And that leads me to all too many things like the piece of prose I’m about to read you.

This is from page 109 of Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, by Catherine Bell.

Here goes:

Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic. It does not see what it does in the process of realizing this end, its transformation of the problematic itself. And yet what ritualization does is actually quite simple: it temporarily structures a space-time environment through a series of physical movements (using schemes described earlier), thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors, both validates and extends the schemes they are internalizing. Indeed, in seeing itself as responding …

Zzzzzz. What? Oh. Sorry. I didn’t make it; there were five more lines.

Indeed, in seeing itself as responding to an environment, ritualization interprets its own schemes…

No. I can’t. Must… Spare… Audience…

Folks, that piece of prose went off the rails with its very first word, “ritualization”.

Let’s reread just that first sentence: “Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.” Now, I believe that ritualization is worth studying, and I’m motivated to study it. So what could be wrong with starting a sentence with that word?

The problem is that the word is in the subject position.

To make this clear, let’s map the elements of story into the simplest form of a sentence.

The simplest form of story is an entity and an action.

The simplest form of sentence is a subject and a predicate.

Sentences become more interesting when the predicate has an action verb, and the sentence form becomes subject-verb-object.

And sentences become far more interesting when either the subject or the object is an entity which the human reader is used to thinking of as an entity.

Here’s that first sentence again:

Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.

What’s wrong, in terms of the writer’s effort to reach a reader, is that humans are not wired to think of ritualization as an entity. That’s what makes the word a poor choice as the subject of a sentence.

The sentence does contain an action verb, of sorts, the word see. But that only makes things worse. It makes the reader say inwardly, though not necessarily at a conscious level, “No. Wrong. Ritualization does not see.” Why does the reader think this? Because he or she knows, instinctively and correctly, that nothing whose name ends in T I O N ever sees anything. Such things do not have eyes, are not, in fact, even things.

Page 3: Your Entity Doesn’t Have To Be a Subject

Now, a sentence with a non-entity in the subject position can still be redeemed by having a real something as its object. For example: “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.”

Virginia Woolf

Virgina Woolf – photo: Wikipedia (public domain image)

That sentence has sadness in the subject position, a thing that has no physical being. And yet the sentence is a story, and a true and an important one. For people who know and have any opinion about Virginia Woolf, there is, packed into those four words, a whole saga as rich and troubling as any tale told by Dostoevski.

Given that Catherine Bell is dealing with a topic as abstract as ritualization, what could she have done? There’s a broad hint waiting for us in the third subordinate clause of the third sentence of the quoted passage. The important words are:

…thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors…

Wait! Whoa! Stop! You mean there are actually actors in this labyrinth? And you kept them hidden until we were already asleep? If only we’d known, we would have paid a call on the poor lonely creatures.

Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic, but we’ve truly found the essence of the problem. The actors mentioned here are probably human. Those are exactly the sort of beings we care about and want to read about. Yet the author has put them in the object position in a triply-subordinate clause, deep down inside the paragraph.

It’s just possible that losing the audience to a coma isn’t even the worst result of this writing. But let’s save that larger damage for a minute, and finish talking about story.

Here’s the formula:

If you can, give your readers something real and concrete in the subject position. If it’s the sort of something that can actually perform actions, that’s great; now you can introduce an action verb. Now you have our favorite kind of story: one in which real beings do things. If those actions results in consequences, you’ve truly covered all the elements of story. Second best is if some real being can go in the object position.

Here’s the hierarchy of the kinds of things that should be subjects and objects. I present them from best to worst:

1. human and exercising moral agency

2. human, not exercising moral agency

3. conscious (with consciousness as close to human as possible, such as an anthropomorphized animal, or the artificial intelligences of Heinlein or Philip K. Dick.)

4. sentient (such as a non-anthropomorphized animal)

5. changeable and responsive (for example, plants or seascapes, which have no senses yet respond to stimuli)

6. concrete and physical

7. non-physical but perceptible (such as sadness or an ominous silence)

Last and absolutely least:

8. abstract (such as things that end in tion).

Page 4: To Sleep, Perchance Not to Evaluate

I said that our sample paragraph did worse harm than even that of putting us to sleep. That greater harm was to make it hard for us as readers, even if we stayed awake, to think critically about the substance of the paragraph.

The author might have rescued those actors from down there in the bowels of sentence three and made them the subject of the entire paragraph. This would have allowed us to think about what the author’s actor is experiencing when in the midst of ritual. We could have compared that to our own experience of ritual, and thus have weighed the validity of the author’s claims. This might even have made it easier for us to determine whether the word ritual actually needed to be stretched out by those three added syllables, and turned into ritualization.

Now, let’s get this week’s idea into a nutshell:

If you really want to reach your audience, it’s not enough for your sentences to be syntactically complete. If at all possible, they should tell stories. You achieve this by coming as close as possible to the ideal of having a real thing, preferably a living thing that people can relate to, in the subject position, and having the primary verb in your sentence be a real action. Second-best is to put that relatable entity in the object position. After all, we are often acted on by impersonal forces, and so, as readers, we can relate to a sentence that presents that sort of situation.

Least desirable is a sentence in which both the subject and any object are abstractions, nouns that don’t represent anything having physical or perceptible existence.

That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about those abstractions that creep into the subject and object positions, how to spot them, and what to do about them. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to wait for me, a title I recommend is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. There’s a link in the transcript on the Word Shots website. A much earlier version of this book is where I read my first lesson in using kernel stories (although the term kernel story is my own).

In episodes beyond next week, we’ll talk about larger story structures, and how they’re helpful for both narrative and expository writing.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

End of transcript.

Bird writing photo credit: jefka – Flickr.

Books mentioned in this episode:


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