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Would you like a verb with that?

September 20, 2010

Struggling with writing is an occupational hazard for some people and more so if the writer cares about the reader. Sometimes in my consultancy role I just blitz a report knowing that with more effort I could make it all the more elegant, but finding the energy to finesse every last word is hard work. It’s just as well there are authors in academia whose prose you can rely on. Today my thanks goes to Larry Browning and Thierry Boudès whose definition of narrative neatly solved a problem of tying the terms narrative, discourse and conversation together in one fell swoop.

The deliberate use of appropriate, accessible verbs in Browning and Boudès’definition is consistent with the idea of supporting sensemaking by effectively managing the relationship between ideas. In his book Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick suggested we should stamp out nouns and stamp in verbs, Dervin used the rather ugly but effective word ‘verbing’ to denote the emphasis on the link and not the endpoints. I know sensemaking has moved on from its earlier origins – the emphasis on verbs is still one worth remembering.

A number of years ago, I acquired a rather interesting list of verbs useful in report writing which I look at for inspiration from time to time. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that about half of the total number of words appearing within the dictionary are nouns and about one seventh are verbs. Does this suggest a fixation on one over the other?

Bill Collopy of the Australian wrote a piece called “Plain speaking punished by plague of vacuous verbs” on September 4th imploring writers to use verbs more carefully. While his commentary was fueled by all the rhetoric being published during the recent election in Australia, he could well be speaking about reports written by consultants. From Bill Collopy:

“A plague is infecting our discourse: a plague of empty verbs without meaning, or too many meanings. Take that earlier example. To “address” an envelope makes perfect sense. But from the pen of Abbott, McCain or the ACCC it could mean at least as many as 14 different things: to fix, to discuss, to research, to pass to an outsider, to delegate to staff, to take soundings, to consult, to cross-examine, to put on an agenda, to put on a to-do list, to write a position paper, to record in the minutes, to postpone and then file away, or to make a speech to the UN assembly.”

I find that the harder I work at finding the best verb, the more easily the ideas come together. Which makes sense.

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