Don’t commit verbicide

Streamline syllables with action words

This just in, writes one of my favorite correspondents, sharing a sentence his subject matter expert has written:

“ABC employees have problem solved their way to an XYZ Company Continuous Improvement success by purchasing a specifically designed storage cabinet to protect the life ring at the neutralization discharge pond.”

Don’t commit verbicide

AND … ACTION! Has your copy been through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times? Turn nouns into verbs and watch your copy get more readable.

Somebody just kill me now, my friend writes.

Or, as his subject matter expert might put it, “Somebody just problem solve his way to a homicide success immediately.”

What’s wrong with this sentence? It:

Worse, it’s been through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times. That’s a problem, because verbs make copy easier to read.

Verbs boost reading ease.

In 1928, Mabel Vogel and Carleton Washburne became the first researchers to statistically correlate writing traits with readability. They found that the more verbs in a writing sample, the easier the sample was to read. In fact, the number of verbs in a 1,000-word sample ranked No. 6 among 19 key elements that contributed to readability.

Why? Because verbs:

  • Make words shorter and more recognizable. Short, familiar words rank among the top two predictors of readability, according to 70 years of research.
  • Simplify sentences. Subject-verb-object is the easiest sentence structure to read and understand. And sentence length and structure is the other element most likely to predict readability.
  • Reveal action. Action is easier for readers to process than things, so verbs are easier to process than nouns.

How can you mind your verbs to boost reading ease?

Reverbify nouns.

Call it verbicide: “Nominalizations” are verbs that writers have turned into nouns — “problem solved,” for instance, instead of “solved the problem.”

In 1979, attorney Robert Charrow and linguist Veda Charrow ran a test to see whether nominalizations and other “linguistic constructions” affected comprehension. They asked 35 people called for jury duty in Maryland to listen to a series of standard jury instructions, then tested participants’ understanding of what they’d heard. Then the researchers reverbified the nouns and otherwise simplified the copy and tested the instructions on a different group.

The reverbified copy was 14 percentage points easier to understand.

At least three other studies have also linked verbicide with reduced comprehension:

  • E.B. Coleman and P.J. Blumenfield (1963)
  • G.R. Klare (1976)
  • D.B. Felkner et al (1981)

No doubt about it: When you write in verbs, you make words shorter, sentences simpler and copy brisker. This sentence, for instance, weighs in at an average of 7.0 characters per word:

“This report explains our investment growth stimulation projects.”

But reverbify some of those nouns, and you can bring that average down to 5.9 characters per word:

“This report explains our projects to stimulate growth in investments.”

Notice how many verbs suffocate in the nouns of my friend’s passage:

“ABC employees have problem solved their way to an XYZ Company Continuous Improvement success by purchasing a specifically designed storage cabinet to protect the life ring at the neutralization discharge pond.”

Those dying verbs make the passage thick, stuffy and hard to understand.

Zoom, zoom

Once you’ve reverbified your copy, push your verbs. Make them as strong and specific as possible.

“A story is a verb, not a noun,” wrote one of the former editors of The New York Times.That means the verb is the story. The stronger the verb, the stronger the story.

How well do your verbs tell your story?

  • Cut Through the Clutter

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    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our in-house clear-writing workshop — you’ll learn how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.


Sources: William H. DuBay, “Smart Language,” Impact Information, 2007

Roy Peter Clark, “Thirty Tools for Writers,” The Poynter Institute, June 19, 2002

David Bowman, owner and chief editor of Precise Edit, “Keep Verbs as Verbs,” 300 Days of Better Writing, Sept. 24, 2010

“Break up complex sentences to help readers,” The Manager’s Intelligence Report

A Plain English Handbook (PDF), U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, 1998


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