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Category : Writing Tips

Trading Nouns for Verbs

One of the hallmarks of good writing is the use of strong, active verbs. Sadly, a lot of American academic English gets caught up in using long, cumbersome chains of  nouns rather than fluid, precise verbs. If you are interested in improving your writing stylistically, try out the following method: trade your nouns for verbs.

Of course, it is impossible to replace all of your nouns with verbs, and nouns obviously serve a necessary function in writing. However, you may be surprised at how often you can streamline your writing and make it more effective by trading your nouns for verbs. Consider the following example:

These groups have the intention of fleeing the country.

While the meaning here is more or less clear, the sentence reads much better when the noun “intention” is transformed into the verb “intend”:

These groups intend to flee the country.

Not only does the second version eliminate unnecessary words, but it also makes the writing sound more assertive and less muddled. Here are some other examples of trading nouns for verbs.

Some Americans have the tendency to over-eat. —> Some Americans tend to over-eat.

The test is an evaluation of the students’ retention. —> The test evaluates the students’ retention.

This factor had a strong influence on the results. —> This factor strongly influenced the results.

The English language contains an extremely large number of words that have both noun and verb versions, including “demonstration” / “demonstrate,” “indication” / “indicate,” “explanation” / “explain,” “effect” / “affect,” “clarification” / “clarify,” “definition” / “define,” and many, many more. Keep an eye out for these kinds of nouns; you can often sharpen your writing by replacing them with their verb counterparts.

And, if you really want to have some fun, take a closer look at the next academic article you read. What is the ratio of nouns to verbs? How many strong, active verbs are these authors using? You will swell with pride when you start finding sentences where others would benefit by trading their nouns for verbs.

The Ambiguous “This”

One very useful feature of the English language is that you can refer to extremely complex ideas with a simple four-letter word: “this.” In academic writing especially, “this” is a handy word because it allows you to create a shorthand version of what might otherwise take you five, ten, or twenty (or, heaven forbid, even more) words to say. However, the word “this” is also notorious for creating ambiguity, which is why this post explains “the ambiguous ‘this’” and how to avoid it.

Basically, the source of confusion is that readers sometimes cannot tell what the pronoun “this” is referring to. Consider the following sentence:

This is a delicious sandwich.

In this case, the pronoun “this” refers to the sandwich that the speaker is holding, eating, or pointing to; there is nothing else that “this” could refer to, and so the sentence makes perfect sense. But what if the pronoun’s referent was not so obvious?

This is delicious.

In this second sentence, the pronoun “this” is suddenly less clear. Unless we can see what the speaker is holding or pointing to, we cannot know if the speaker is referring to a sandwich, a glass of lemonade, or a bowl of pasta.

Now, in academic writing, the words and concepts that “this” stands in for tend to be much more complicated than an everyday sandwich. Consider the following example:

Children under the age of 7 tend to interpret comments made by others as being directed towards them, whereas older children are better able to differentiate between self-directed and others-directed communication. This can lead to frustration among educators.

In the above example, the pronoun “this” is ambiguous because it can refer to at least three things from the previous sentence: how children under the age of 7 interpret comments, how older children interpret comments, or the difference between how these groups of children interpret comments. To resolve this ambiguity, you can simply use the word “this” as a determiner rather than a pronoun. In other words, you are answering the question, “this what?” For instance:

This difference in communication styles can lead to frustration among educators.

In this revised version, “this” is simply a determiner which precedes the more specific phrase, “difference in communication styles.” By adding a specific referent to the previous sentence rather than leaving “this” to stand on its own, the new version avoids any ambiguity.

Remember, then, that if think you might be plaguing your reader with the dreaded ambiguous “this,” just answer the question, “this what?”

Active versus Passive Voice

Your English instructor has just assigned a writing project to the class and admonishes everyone to “use active voice in your writing.” You go to your next class, i.e., your microbiology class, and your instructor emphatically states that “you must use passive voice when writing laboratory reports.” So, what is active voice and passive voice? Why would you want to use one over the other?

Active voice in writing places the emphasis on the subject of the sentence as the one doing the action. A very simple example is as follows: “Jill ate some cookies.” Jill, the subject of the sentence, comes first and is clearly doing the action. That is, she ate cookies, which is the object of the sentence. Passive voice changes the emphasis of the sentence to the object by moving it to the place of the subject. In passive voice, the sentence would read, “Some cookies were eaten by Jill.” The object, i.e., “cookies,” moves to the front of the sentence. However, as the object, the cookies aren’t doing anything. They are only the recipients of Jill’s action.

Note that active voice is often preferred for several reasons. Even though sentences written in passive voice are grammatically correct, they are sometimes a bit awkward and certainly wordy. Look at our example. The active voice (i.e., “Jill ate some cookies”) is very straightforward and easy to understand. In contrast, the passive voice (i.e., “Some cookies were eaten by Jill”) uses more awkward phrasing and adds additional words to the sentence. Moreover, consider the following sentence in passive voice: “Some cookies were eaten.” This sentence does not even tell us who did the action.

However, in some instances, passive voice may be preferred. If you don’t know who did the action, you may want to phrase the sentence with passive voice (e.g., “The diamonds were stolen.”). This also places emphasis on the object, which may be desired. Also, scientific writing typically adopts the passive voice because it creates a more objective tone in the writing. However, note that it is becoming more acceptable to use active voice when describing the methods (e.g., “We identified the protein with a Western blot analysis”).

I would like to share one last word on active and passive voice. Regarding a quick and easy method to identify passive versus active voice, many blog writers have encouraged their readers to use the “zombie” test. This method may seem silly, but it works! If the sentence still makes sense after inserting the phrase “by zombies” immediately after the verb, the sentence is written in passive voice. Let’s go back to our first example – “Some cookies were eaten by Jill.” The zombie test tells us that “Some cookies were eaten [by zombies].” Indeed, this is passive voice. However, “Jill ate [by zombies]” changes the meaning of the sentence; therefore, it uses active voice.