They suck the energy out of your copy
There’s nothing like noun phrases to make a tight sentence long, to transform clear, conversational language into stuffy bureaucratese:
“It is the intention of this team to facilitate the improvement of our company’s processes.”
Yet too many communicators write in noun phrases, not in verb phrases.
Why avoid noun phrases?
Noun phrases are groups of words where writers have turned verbs into nouns with latinized suffixes. Noun phrases:
1. Suck the energy out of your copy.
Noun phrases take perfectly strong verbs — verbs like “intend” and “improve” — and turn them into long, latinized nouns: “intention” and “improvement.” As a result, noun phrases suck the energy from a sentence, because only verbs can convey action.
“Much of what crosses my desk has been through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times.”
— A frustrated communicator
That’s a problem, because the human brain thinks in action, not in things or ideas. Or so says Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for feature stories:
Don’t turn action into persons, places, things or ideas.
2. Muddy your words.
Latinized nouns are almost always longer than the verbs they replace. Intention is three characters longer than intend; improvement, four characters longer than improve.
3. Lengthen your phrases.
It’s not just that noun phrases make single words longer. They also add to the length of sentences.
Noun phrases include the on one side of the nouned verb; of on the other: The improvement of. That makes a noun phrase two words longer than the original verb.
4. Bore your readers.
Noun phrases “aren’t visual and turn prose pallid,” writes science fiction author Nancy Kress. “Save them for interoffice memos.”
5. Make it seem as if you don’t understand.
As Joseph M. Williams writes in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:
Avoid these “clumps of abstraction.”
Search and destroy noun phrases
How do you get the action back into noun phrases?
“Exhume the action, make it a verb, and you’re almost certain to tighten and enliven the wording.”
— Claire Kehrwald Cook, author of Line by Line
To spot and repair these sloggy phrases:
1. Search for the word “of.”
That doesn’t mean that “of” is bad or is part of a noun phrase. But virtually every noun phrase uses the “the … of” construction (“the intention of” instead of “intend,” for example.) When you find an “of” …
2. Look to the left for a latinized suffix.
Suffixes like “tion,” “ment,” “ize” or “ility” turn verbs into nouns.
3. Turn noun phrases back into verbs.
When you find a noun phrase, recast it into a verb-powered sentence. “Our team plans to help improve our company’s processes,” for instance.
The result: Strong verbs that drive your copy — and sentences that are shorter, more energetic and easier to understand.
Write for readability.
Here are four more ways to make your writing clearer and shorter:
- Activate passive voice: Don’t make your subject objects.
- Avoid adjective clauses: Hype just gets in the way.
- Steer clear of prepositional phrases: They’re hard to understand.
- Nail possessive pronouns: And other ways to write it right.
Sources: Ann Wylie, Cut Through the Clutter, Wylie Communications Inc., 2005
Nancy Kress, “Write Lean and Mean,” Writer’s Digest, July 2004