Verbs And Other Things…

One of the ongoing threads of readers’ contributions is “The Verbing of America” (as Bulletin Board’s editor ironically dubbed it). Launched as a language lover’s lament about the bowdlerizing of English, this discussion thread has pilloried such slangy coinages as columnize, which you may have winced at in my first sentence.

Lately, however, “The Verbing of America” entries have sometimes taken a fonder view of the colorful phrasings spotted and submitted by readers. For example, one Bulletin Board correspondent recently wrote in to report, with delight rather than dismay: “I was at choir practice last night, and we came to this part in this piece that we’re singing where our choir director, Steve, wanted the chorus to swell and get all … big. He said: `I really want it big. I want it Cecil B. DeMilled.’ ”

Verbs can be tough for non-native English speakers.

True, if you look in even the heftiest, least-abridged dictionary under “Cecil B. DeMille,” you will not see “v.–to make extravagantly large and showy.” But even language purists would have to confess: You know exactly what Steve the choir director wanted, right? And he couldn’t possibly have said it any more clearly or colorfully.

Isn’t that what we all want from our writing? So does that mean writers in search of clear and colorful prose should, well, verbify like crazy?

Yes and … no, not exactly.

Writing With Verve and Verbs

As I’ve preached before, verbs do the heavy lifting of your articles. “You could toss all your adjectives in the trash and still be able to say something, but without verbs you have no writing, only collections of words. Verbs make things happen,” I sermonized in my book How to Write Fast (While Writing Well). I also like to quote William Zinsser, from On Writing Well: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.” Active verbs give life to your prose; passive verbs and excess modifiers, hollow adjectives and empty adverbs drag it down and deaden it.

Back in February, in fact, I devoted an entire column to the evil wiles of adverbs–a column written with agonizingly (argh!) few adverbs, to emphasize my point. After that column appeared, I received several appreciative notes from readers, saying I had helped them see the error of their -ly-ing ways.

I’d thought of crafting this column as the flip side of that one–a paean to the power and prowess of the noble verb. Eschew adverbs! Employ verbs!

But thinking about “The Verbing of America” made me wonder if even the mighty verb has fallen on hard times. If I can write columnize with a more or less straight face, then has the verb, that most potent of the writer’s tools, been lost to jargon, bureaucratic double-speak and awkward coinages?

Typical of the sad state of the modern verb would seem to be the lament from another Bulletin Board reader, who spotted this in a Wall Street Journal article about an intelligence operation gone awry: “The Interior operatives regularly liaise with intelligence and law-enforcement agents.”

Liaise? What the heck kind of verb is that? Liaison, yes, is a perfectly acceptable noun, but liaise stinks of bureaucracy and jargon–just what you’d expect from the CIA, but not from the conservative (fiscally and otherwise) Wall Street Journal.

Liaise, however, turns out to be a better example for the language Visigoths than for those struggling to keep English pure. A trip to the dictionary reveals that, though liaise is guilty as charged as a “back-formation” from liaison, it was back-formed (sorry) back in 1928.

So the verbing of America is not a new phenomenon. And while it has given us such limp neologisms as liaise, it has also given us plenty of fresh, vivid new verbs that make the language richer and a more muscular tool for writers. Someday, it may even give us demille as a verb–who knows?

Impacting How You Implement Verbs

Close readers of this column may have noticed that I’m fond of playing with the language myself–despite a strict upbringing as the offspring of not one but two college English teachers. My looseness with the language has never reached Cecil B. DeMille proportions, but I do dare to twist a phrase now and then.

So how do you decide what’s a playful, meaningful coinage and what’s a verbing to be avoided? Once you loosen the strict dictionary limits, how do you keep from driving the language–and your poor readers–right off a cliff? Stop me before I verb again!

Above all, you must balance colorful writing against clarity. That’s why jargon is such a black hole for effective communication: Jargon, particularly in bureaucratic writing, drains words of their color and life even as it minimizes clarity; it’s the worst of all possible worlds for language. Indeed, colorless obfuscation is the whole point of jargon–to seem to be saying something, in as uninteresting a way as possible, while actually communicating little or nothing.

Such verbs as utilize, prioritize, coordinate and implement, for example, while perfectly valid English words, have become so bland through bureaucratic repetition as to be almost nulls. “We need to coordinate the prioritization of how we utilize strategies to implement new programs” might as well be in Martian for all it communicates. Or what about point of sale? Is it OK if I abbreviate and pronounce it as POS??

Similarly, impact has gained great popularity as a verb meaning “to have an impact on.” (In its previous life as a verb, impact meant “to wedge together,” as in an impacted tooth.) That is, a verb form has sprung up from the noun, impact. Everyone knows what it means, no one thinks you’re dipping into dentistry when you use it, and I guess it’s on its way into the language with liaise.

But is impact a good verb for your nonfiction writing? It strikes me as limp and, yes, smacking of jargon, the kind of word a university administrator would use to avoid actually saying anything. It lends itself too easily to obfuscation: “The policy will negatively impact the poor” seems a mealymouthed way around saying, “The policy will hurt the poor.”

Other jargon spins off changes in technology, culture or the economy. Consider repurpose, for example, as in “Microsoft will repurpose the material into a CD-ROM.” Meaning “reuse for an another purpose,” repurpose has become a vogue verb because of the boom in new digital media: Books turn into CD-ROMs, movies beget video games, magazines spawn Web sites. But repurpose fails both the color and clarity tests, at least on my scorecard. It’s anything but colorful (on that score, maybe gatesize, as in Microsoft mogul Bill Gates, will someday be the verb of choice), and its tacked-on structure bogs down reading. That way lies words like antidisestablishmentarianism.

Then you have Madison Avenue jargon and packaging lingo. A Salon Selectives Conditioner bottle, for example, promises that the product “Texturizes and bodifies fine, thin or normal hair.” Such language sounds great, but is less filling than real verbs.

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