Verbs Matter

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Verbs Matter

“If you know how to handle the verbs, you know how to handle the language.”

— Michel Thomas

Vague verbs cause fuzzy communication. To ensure your message achieves its purpose, check your verbs. Are they precise, or do they leave room for interpretation?

Example A

Please work on the contract.
(What does “work” mean—“write,” “revise,” “cancel,” “review,” “sign,” “renew”?)

Please amend the contract.
(The new verb is much clearer.)

Example B

We must do the shingles and then the flashing.
(What does “do” involve?)

We must replace the shingles and repair the flashing.
(The new verbs are precise.)

How can I select strong verbs?

Choose the most precise verb for each situation. That way you will leave your reader with no doubt about what action to take.

Weak Do Improve Get Make Put
Stronger Arrange Optimize Bill Design Apply
Strongest Schedule Refinance Invoice Prototype Caulk

How can I avoid weak verbs?

Avoid nominalizations, which turn strong verbs into abstract nouns and pair them with weak verbs.

Note how words ending with the suffixes -tion and -ment offer clues to potential hidden verbs.

Nominalization (bolded) Hidden Verb
give a presentation present
make a decision decide
take into consideration consider
provide an analysis analyze
come to an estimation estimate
perform a calibration calibrate
give an assignment assign
do an assessment assess
have a requirement require
offer a description describe
perform a review review
bring energy to energize

How can I emphasize a specific action?

Use command sentences, which tell readers just what to do. These sentences start with a strong, active verb and an implied subject (you).

So instead of writing “The seat should be attached to the chair frame with four long bolts,” use a command sentence: “Attach the seat to the chair frame using four long bolts.”

Watch Command Sentences Video on YouTube
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Play the Editor!

The verb choice in this policy statement is dull and vague. Replace the bolded verbs and nominalizations with stronger verbs. Then turn the list items into command sentences.

UMI Manufacturing Inc. does products that meet or exceed both industry standards and our customers’ expectations for quality. Providing quality products and services is the heart of UMI’s mission and success.

To that end, UMI Manufacturing wants to do these actions:

  • We will look at and make products better based on customer needs.
  • We will make corrections to procedures that create problems for customers and provide documentation about both the actions taken and the results.
  • We will look at and reduce process variation in order to decrease product costs.
  • We will make an investment of time and resources to employee training that supports product improvement and customer satisfaction.
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Editor’s Recommendation

UMI Manufacturing Inc. produces products that meet or exceed both industry standards and our customers’ expectations for quality. Providing quality products and services is the heart of UMI’s mission and success.

To that end, UMI Manufacturing commits to these actions:

  • Monitor and improve products based on customer needs.
  • Correct procedures that create problems for customers and document both the actions taken and the results.
  • Monitor and reduce process variation in order to decrease product costs.
  • Invest time and resources in employee training employee training to improve products and satisfy customers.