Business and word choices: nouns and verbs

Imagine you are a business owner. You hire employees and ask them to do the jobs they are best suited for. An employee is good at dealing with people, so you need to get them to interact with him CLIENTS. Another employee is good with numbers, so you have to take care of data and payments.

In the present day Everyday grammar, we will consider a situation that is somewhat like our imaginary business. Instead of an employer putting people in the right positions, we’ll explore a way a language learner can put words in the right positions.

What is the correct position? One that provides the clearest expression of meaning.

In this report, you will learn about a common situation that can reduce the clear expression of ideas or clarity. This situation involves the use of noun forms of words that would be better expressed as verbs.

Sentence structure

Let’s start with sentence structure.

Sentences are generally divided into two parts: the subject and predicate.

For example:

The boy threw the ball.

The sentence has this structure:

Subject – verb – object

The subject is “boy”. The verb is “throw”, and the object is “ball”.

The further the sentence deviates from the order of subject, verb, object, the more difficult it becomes to understand.

Similarly, subjects that are concrete – means that they can act; they can do something – they are better than the subjects they are abstract. Abstract words or phrases cannot act.

Abstractions are often the result of noun forms that would be better used as verb forms.

Consider these two examples.

The man took a walk.

Establishing a better tax policy will be done after the elections.

The first sentence is much easier to understand – and not just because it’s shorter. “The man took a walk” is much easier to understand because the subject is concrete – man.

The second sentence is much more difficult to understand because it involves an abstract topic – establishment, as in “creating a better tax policy.”

The name “establishment…” can do nothing. It is an abstract noun that would be clearer if it were in verb form.

How can we change the sentence to make it clearer? Here is one possibility:

Council members will decide on a better tax policy after the election.

In our new sentence, the subject is “council members.” They can act. We changed the noun form “establishment…” to the verb form “establish”.

When verbs act as nouns

When a sentence seems unclear, check if there is a noun that might work better as a verb. In other words, check to make sure that the nouns and verbs are in the best place for what you want to express.

In her book, Well done sentenceWriting expert Nora Bacon gives this example of a poorly structured sentence:

An emphasis is placed on the development of research skills in our graduation program.

Bacon suggests that the sentence would be much better if he dropped the noun form “an emphasis” and replaced it with the verb form “emphasizes”, as in:

Our graduate program emphasizes the development of research skills.


Let’s take some time to work through these ideas.

Stop the audio after you hear the example sentence. Consider how to change the sentence so that it has a clear subject:

The candidate’s decision to withdraw from the race came when he fell to eighth place in a public opinion poll.

Here is one way to change the sentence:

The candidate decided to leave the race when he fell to eighth place in a public opinion poll.

When we changed the noun “decision” to the verb “decide”, the subject of the sentence became shorter and clearer.

Shutting down thoughts

We started this report with a comparison with a business owner. While the comparison isn’t perfect, it provides a useful way to think about sentences. The business owner wants to hire a person where his or her talents are strongest. In other words, the business owner wants the right person for the job.

The same idea applies when you’re making language choices: The reason you use a word or structure is because it’s the right word or structure for the job.

Next time you are reading or writing, check the sentences that seem unclear. If they seem vague, there’s a good chance they include a noun that would be better in verb form.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA to learn English.


The words in this story

customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business

predicate – n. grammar: the part of the sentence that expresses what is said about the topic

concrete – adj. relating to or involving particular people, things, or actions rather than general ideas or qualities

abstract – adj. relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions

graduation – adj. : of or relating to a course of study taken at a college or university after obtaining a bachelor’s degree or other first degree

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