Action-Verb Problems

...actions missing in action

This is a work in progress: lots of writing, formatting, revising, proofing left to do! — David McMurrey


Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, from the 15th illuminated manuscript.






One of Joseph M. Williams' most important contributions in his Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace involves his concept of how, in some sentences, the true action of a sentence is not stated in the grammatical verb of that sentence or may even be absent from the sentence altogether. The same thing can happen with the true "character" of a sentence and the grammatical subject (covered in the characters-and-subjects chapter). These separations can be caused by constructions like nominalizations (covered in this chapter) and passive voice (covered in a separate chapter. The problem with these separations is that they force readers to do extra mental processing in order to understand the sentences in which they occur. And, they often cause sentences to be wordy and awkward.

Sentences of this type are one of the biggest problems in professional, business, governmental, and technical writing. And, for some people, the distinction between sentence "actions" and "verbs" is difficult to understand. Take your time going through this chapter.

In this chapter, you'll practice identifying the actual, "true" action in sentences when it is not operating as the grammatical verb. We'll call these situations action-verb separations. You'll then practice revising these sentences so that the true action is stated in the grammatical-verb slot.

Action-verb separation:
Sentence in which the action of the sentence is not stated in the grammatical verb.

Spotting Action-Verb Separations

As Joseph M. Williams in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace shows, grammatical verbs and true action can be separate from each other in sentences. Here's an example:

Action-verb separation: Freshmen have frequently made complaints about the cafeteria food.

In this sentence, the grammatical verb is have made. However, as you can probably see, complaints could easily be turned into the main verb of the sentence. When you can so easily convert a noun into the main verb of a sentence, you have a nominalization. Think of nominalizations as verbs that have been "noun-ified." Consider the words have made complaints the nominalized verb phrase. The verb phrase is have made, but obviously the entire thing can be reduced to have complained. Here's the obvious revision:

Revision: Freshmen have frequently complained about the cafeteria food.

Nominalization:
Sentence in which a verb-like word has been converted into a noun (often functioning as the subject of the sentence).

True, this is a seemingly minor, trivial change. But as you see in the rest of the examples of this chapter, changes like these can be substantive, and the resulting increase in clarity can be huge. The following diagram shows that in the original sentence, the action was not directly stated and was only implicit. In the revised version, the verb and the action are identical—which is what you usually want as a writer.

Version Verb Action
Original have been (complained)
Revision have complained have complained


Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center

Here's a variation of the previous example:

Action-verb separation: These days, the main activities of freshmen are complaints about the cafeteria food.

As you can see, complaints is once again a nominalization. But the actual grammatical verb is much weaker than in the previous example. Here, it is are. Moreover, even more words are jammed into this sentence.

Revision: These days, freshmen are complaining about the cafeteria food.

Fixing Action-Verb Separations

Action:
The event or state of "being" in a sentence, usually—but not always—stated in the grammatical verb.

If you understand the distinction between actions and verbs of sentences, consider the following examples. In these examples, the true action gets progressively harder to identify; the sentences get progressively harder to revise. As you go through these examples, cover up the revisions and see if you can mentally work them out yourself.

Action-verb separation: In 1972, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould made the observation that the history of the book is marked by long periods of stability in format alternating with periods of radical change.

This one is easy. Just change the nominalized verb phrase made the observation to observed:

Revision: In 1972, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould observed that the history of the book is marked by long periods of stability in format alternating with periods of radical change.

Action-verb separation: The theory makes the postulation that long-term stability of species (with only minor modifications) in paleontologic time is punctuated by bursts of time in which many species are extinguished.

Grammatical verb:
The actual verb of the subject an independent or dependent clause—which may or may not express the true action of that clause.

Once again, an easy one. Change the nominalized verb phrase makes the postulation to postulates:

Revision: The theory postulates that long-term stability of species (with only minor modifications) in paleontologic time is punctuated by bursts of time in which many species are extinguished.

Action-verb separation: Species managed to achieve evolution from parental species that made an escape from extinction by virtue of their geographic isolation.

Here, the nominalized verb phrase is particularly wordy: managed to achieve evolution. How easy to change it to evolved:

Revision: Species evolved from parental species that escaped from extinction by virtue of their geographic isolation.

Action-verb separation: The Sumerians are credited with the invention of writing toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.


Sefer Torah. Specially hand-written copy of the Torah or Pentateuch, which is the holiest book within Judaism.

Once again, an impressively wordy nominalized verb phrase: are credited with the invention of. It can be reduced to invented. True, "crediting" the Sumerians with the invention of writing gets lost in this revision:

Revision: The Sumerians invented writing toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.

Action-verb separation: Neither the clay tablet nor the papyrus roll underwent much change in form during the next three thousand years.

Reduce the nominalized verb phrase underwent much change to changed much:

Revision: Neither the clay tablet nor the papyrus roll changed much in form during the next three thousand years.

Action-verb separation: The writing tablet made of wood embedded with wax had been in existence since at least the fourteenth century B.C.

Reduce the nominalized verb phrase had been in existence to had existed:

Revision: The writing tablet made of wood embedded with wax had existed since at least the fourteenth century B.C.

Action-verb separation: The Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia (now roughly the lower half of Iraq), achieved the first creation of word writing in 3100 B.C.

A nice wordy nominalized verb phrase: achieved the first creation of. Reduce it to first created. True, the revision doesn't carry as much emphasis as the original; you might prefer to retain some wording more like the original.

Revision: The Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia (now roughly the lower half of Iraq), first created word writing in 3100 B.C.

Action-verb separation: For readier access, the early Christians used the technique of sewing together gatherings of folded sheets of papyrus and sewing the outermost gatherings to wood, papyrus, or leather covers.

How easy it is to spin out unnecessary words! The phrase used the technique of sewing can be reduced to sewed!

Revision: For readier access, the early Christians sewed together gatherings of folded sheets of papyrus and sewed the outermost gatherings to wood, papyrus, or leather covers.

Action-verb separation: In the last third of the twentieth century, the book composed of bound, inked and folded sheets went through a metamorphosis into a screen display on an electronic machine began.

This is a tough one because we are not used to using metamorphosis as a verb. It sounds awkward. Thus, changing the nominalized verb phrase (went through a metamorphosis to has been evolving) may sound more natural.

Revision: In the last third of the twentieth century, the book composed of bound, inked and folded sheets has been evolving into a screen display on an electronic machine.

Action-verb separation: The company has made improvements in its technical support program.

Here, the candidate for grammatical verb is improvements, obviously a noun in this sentence. Here is the revision:

Revision: The company improved its technical support program.

In this revision, the noun improvements in the original sentence becomes the verb improved in the revised sentence. This is not to suggest that the original sentence is absolutely wrong: there may be situations where sentences like the original work best.

Had enough? If you are confident with what you've studied in this chapter, use these two sets of exercises to test yourself:


Moveable cast metal type: Garamond style long s/i ligature

Fun with Action-Verb Separations

If you yourself can intentionally write sentences where grammatical verbs and true actions are not one in the same, you've mastered this important writing concept. Study how the following perfectly decent sentences have been destroyed by separating grammatical verb and action:

Action-verb unified: The US Department of Energy is funding seven research partnerships to test sequestration technologies.

Let's ruin this sentence!

Action-verb separated: The US Department of Energy is making funds available to seven research partnerships to test sequestration technologies.

Fiendish, huh? Now, this one:

Action-verb unified: In the summer of 2007, one of those projects will inject a modest 2,000 metric tons of CO2 into the sandstone subsurface beneath tomato fields near Thornton, CA.

Attack!

Action-verb separated: In the summer of 2007, one of those projects will undertake the injection of a modest 2,000 metric tons of CO2 into the sandstone subsurface beneath tomato fields near Thornton, CA.

And another?

Action-verb unified: Even if researchers master the mechanics of sequestration, they must still develop a way to separate CO2 from power-plant exhaust so that there will be something to stash in the cavities in the first place.

If you haven't noticed, the trick to destroying these sentences involves shoving a useless verb in front of perfectly decent active verb and then turning the original verb into a noun. For example, instead of recommend, you can fiendishly convert it to make the recommendation, thus filling the world with more unnecessary words. Using the original sentence, you can create two action-verb separations:

Action-verb separated: Even if researchers achieve the mastery of the mechanics of sequestration, they must still work out the development of a way to separate CO2 from power-plant exhaust.

Action-verb unified: While legislators in Washington debate the urgency of global warming, states and cities aren't waiting for Congress to act.

Here, two action-verb separations can be created, one at the very end of the sentence. take action is not so bad; it carries a certain amount of emphasis that to act may not.

Action-verb separated: While legislators in Washington engage in debates over the urgency of global warming, states and cities aren't waiting for Congress to take action.

If you are confident that you can destroy sentences by separating grammatical verbs and actions (which often results in the creation of nominalizations), use this exercise to test yourself.


Cast metal type case and composing stick

Exercises

Links to these exercises are provided at the end of the preceding sections where they are relevant. But here they all are in case you read the text straight through:

Additional Resources


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