I Come to Bury Verbs, Not to Praise Them

Mourners of the soon-to-be-buried verb looked on as the coffin descended into the open grave. The question mark hunched over in grief. The exclamation point stood bolt upright, its posture a salute to its good friend’s passing. Three periods stood side by side, a single space between them. They looked off into the distance, elliptical expressions only hinting at the emotions roiling within.

As a pair of quotation marks prepared to say something profound, a single, overriding concern passed among the congregants: Why, cruel Fate? Why?

Every day, all across the land, people are burying verbs. The practice undoubtedly seems like something that happens elsewhere, something that happens to other people, in other neighborhoods. The truth, however, is that it occurs closer to home than most would care to think.

A buried verb, also referred to as a smothered verb or nominalization, results when a verb is hidden within a noun phrase. If a person says “She made an agreement” instead of “She agreed,” then that person has buried the verb.

The following are a few other examples of buried verbs:

  • take a look (instead of “look”)
  • make a recommendation (instead of “recommend”)
  • make the argument (instead of “argue”)

One consequence of using buried verbs is that the writer is unnecessarily adding words. Another is that the writer is obscuring meaning. By their nature, nouns are less active than verbs, so employing a noun to do the heavy lifting for a sentence deadens the language.

The verb is the engine that makes the sentence run, and people can always improve their writing by using stronger verbs. For the same reason, as Stephen King recommended in his fantastic book On Writing, people should not use adverbs to cover up weak verbs.

This does not mean that people should never use buried verbs or adverbs, but a careful writer is aware of their potentially adverse effect on a sentence. When editing your work, these are two more things to keep your eye on. And honestly, considering the doleful expressions in the scene above, burying a verb may not be worth the guilt that is sure to follow.

Note: In the first paragraph, I used the phrase “side by side.” This phrase is not hyphenated when used as an adverb, as above, but it is hyphenated when used as an adjective (“side-by-side periods”). A similar expression, “face-to-face,” is hyphenated as both an adverb and an adjective. No wonder people have such a difficult time with hyphenation!

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