Who’s Afraid of Verbs?

What makes bad writing bad? The big stuff is obvious. But what happens when you get a piece of writing that’s sneakily bad – you’re not quite sure why it smells, but it’s so bad it honks. What do you do then?

We hope we can help.

One of the villains of sneakily bad writing is the verb that should have stayed a verb but decided to dress up a bit and wander off down the sentence to masquerade as a noun.

Fancy flexing your writer muscles? Read the first sentences in each of the five pairs below, work out what the verbs are, and then try and work out why, even when you’ve simplified the writing, there’s still something stinky about it.  The second sentence is our version, which hopefully is more pleasantly fragrant.


1. In 1990, Joseph M. Williams executed the composition of a book – the title of which was Style – which is generally considered to be one of the most accomplished titles in its field.

1a. In 1990, Joseph M. Williams wrote a book called Style, and it’s one of the best “How To Write” books there is.

2. In the first chapters, there is an observation made that, in the works of bad or unclear writers, the replacement of simple verbs with abstract nouns is a remarkably frequent tendency.

2a. In the first chapters, he observes a frequent tendency in bad writers to replace simple verbs with abstract nouns.

3. This practice, as well as engendering confusion and uncertainty as to the occurrence of events, will often result in a divorce between the verbal component of a sentence and that sentence’s subject.

3a. As well as making it unclear what’s actually happening, doing this often divorces the subjects of sentences from their verbs.

4. The utilisation of this style will also cause the appearance of the use of passive voice, even when a sentence actually stands in the active.

4a. This can make an active-voice sentence sound like it’s written in the passive, even when it isn’t.

5. In the avoidance of unclear or confusing prose, writers are advised to perform a second reading of their work in order to ensure that verbs and their subjects are given proper signposting so that it is apparent what events are occurring and which characters have affected their perpetration.

5a. So here’s a tip if you feel your writing is unclear or confusing: Read it again, make sure your verbs are verbs, and make sure the subjects in your narrative are clearly linked to what they’re doing.


Stuck? Something smells bad? Call British Gas or give us a tweet @VerbID or email Chris, and we’ll be happy to clear things up.