Imagine you are a business owner. You hire employees and ask them to do the jobs they are best fitted for. One employee is skilled at dealing with people, so you have them interact with customers. Another employee is good with numbers, so you have them take care of records and payments.
In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will consider a situation that is in some ways like our fictional business. Except instead of an employer putting people into the right positions, we will explore one way a language learner can put words into the right positions.
What is the right position? The one that provides for the clearest expression of meaning.
In this report, you will learn about a common situation that can reduce the clear expression of ideas, or clarity. This situation involves using noun forms of words that would be better expressed as verbs.
Let’s start with sentence structure.
We generally divide sentences into two parts: the subject and the predicate.
The boy threw the ball.
The sentence has this structure:
Subject – verb – object
The subject is “the boy.” The verb is “threw,” and the object is “the ball.”
The farther the sentence gets away from the subject, verb, object order, the harder it becomes to understand.
Similarly, subjects that are concrete – meaning they can act; they can do something – are better than subjects that are abstract. Abstract words or phrases cannot act.
Abstractions are often a result of noun forms that would be better used as verb forms.
Consider these two examples.
The man took a walk.
The establishment of a better tax policy will take place after the elections.
The first sentence is much easier to understand – and not just because it is shorter. “The man took a walk” is much easier to understand because the subject is concrete – the man.
The second sentence is much more difficult to understand because it involves an abstract subject – the establishment, as in “the establishment of a better tax policy.”
The noun “the establishment....” cannot do anything. It is an abstract noun that would be clearer if it were in verb form.
How might we change the sentence so that it is clearer? Here is one possibility:
Council members will establish a better tax policy after the elections.
In our new sentence, the subject is “council members.” They can act. We changed the noun form “the establishment....” to the verb form “establish.”
When verbs act like nouns
When a sentence seems unclear, check whether it has a noun that might work better as a verb. In other words, check to make sure that nouns and verbs are in the best place for what you want to express.
In her book, The Well-Crafted Sentence, writing expert Nora Bacon provides this example of a poorly structured sentence:
An emphasis is placed on the development of research skills in our graduate program.
Bacon suggests that the sentence would be much better if it removed the noun form “an emphasis” and replaced it with the verb form “emphasizes,” as in:
Our graduate program emphasizes the development of research skills.
Let’s take some time to work with these ideas.
Pause the audio after hearing the example sentence. Consider how to change the sentence so that it has a clear subject:
The candidate’s decision to drop out of the race happened when he fell to eighth place in a public opinion poll.
Here is one way you might change the sentence:
The candidate decided to drop out of the race when he fell to eighth place in a public opinion poll.
When we changed the noun “decision” to the verb “decided,” the sentence’s subject became shorter and clearer.
We began this report with a comparison to a business owner. While the comparison is not perfect, it does provide a useful way to think about sentences. The business owner wants to employ a person where his or her talents are strongest. In other words, the business owner wants the right person for the job.
The same idea holds true when you are making choices about language: The reason you use a word or structure is because it is the right word or structure for the job.
The next time you are reading or writing, check sentences that seem unclear. If they seem unclear, there is a good chance that they involve a noun that would be better in verb form.
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
predicate – n. grammar: the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject
concrete – adj. relating to or involving specific people, things, or actions rather than general ideas or qualities
abstract – adj. relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions
graduate – adj. : of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree