2.4- Write with verbs
My altered version says, loud music came from speakers embedded in the walls, and the entire arena moved as the hungry crowd got to its feet. Loud music exploded from speakers embedded in the walls, and the entire arena shook as the hungry crowd leaped to its feet. So I rewrote it as, one study found that, of 930 adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) who were receiving care in one of two managed care settings or in a fee for service setting, only two-thirds of those needing to contact a neurologist for an MS-related problem in the prior six months had done so.
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In this next module we’re going to talk about writing with verbs. I want you to use strong verbs, avoid turning verbs into nouns, and avoid burying the main verb. I’m going to go over each of these three principles in turn. The first thing is, we want to use strong verbs. Verbs are what drive the English language. Verbs make sentences go. They make the sentence lively. They draw the reader in. So you need to focus on writing with verbs. Here’s an example that illustrates this point. I took a sentence from a novel and I changed a few words to make a point. My altered version says, loud music came from speakers embedded in the walls, and the entire arena moved as the hungry crowd got to its feet. Now, that’s a perfectly fine sentence. It’s pretty descriptive, it moves along, it draws the reader in. It’s not bad. But I want you to compare that to the original version of this sentence. Loud music exploded from speakers embedded in the walls, and the entire arena shook as the hungry crowd leaped to its feet. You can see how those expressive, active great verbs make that sentence so vivid. It draws the reader in. It brings the sentence to life. Of course, in scientific writing, we rarely get to say exploded or shook or leaped. But we can certainly do better with verbs. A lot of times we end up just using to be verbs, or provides, or shows. We can do better than those boring verbs. So I want to encourage you don’t just reach for any old verb. Try to pick the right verb for your sentence. Here’s an example. It’s a perfectly fine sentence. It says, The WHO reports that approximately two-thirds of the world’s diabetics are found in developing countries, and estimates that the number of diabetics in these countries will double in the next 25 year. We have two verbs in the sentence, we have reports and estimates. And they’re fine, but we can do better. What’s another way to say, reports approximately? Remember I told you last week, that we’re going to try to avoid the use of adverbs. Well one way to avoid adverb is to pick the right verb that already has the adverb embedded in the verb. So a faster way to say, reports approximately, is to say, estimates. Now, we don’t want to repeat the verb estimates, so we might want to come up with a better verb for the second part of that sentence as well. Here, the authors are talking about estimating something about the future. Well theres a better verb for that, right? How about, projects? Do you see how much stronger that is because it gets the idea of the future right there in the verb? These are just slightly better verb choices, but they make a big difference to the sentence, so pay attention to picking the right verbs. I encourage you to use a thesaurus to help you find the best verbs for every situation. Now, to be verbs, is, are, was, were, be, been, am. They are highly overused in scientific writing and they’re boring. You have to use to be verbs sometimes. You can’t avoid them, but they should not be the predominant verbs in your paper. When you get a chance, try going through your writing and underlining all of your verbs. See how often you use to be verbs. You might be surprised. So where possible, try to substitute those to be verbs with something a little bit more exciting, a little bit stronger. Last week, we talked about the problem of turning verbs into nouns. This is a bad habit that’s firmly entrenched in academic writing. I want you to catch yourself doing this and try to turn those nouns back into verbs. Here’s an example. It says, during DNA damage, recognition of protein one by protein two results in recruitment of protein three and repression of cell proliferation genes. You can see all the nouns in that. We have recognition, recruitment, repression, which could have been, recognize, recruit, and repress. Again, as I said last week, those nouns slow your reader down. It’s hard for your reader to follow what’s happening because we don’t have any action here. And actually, when I was editing this for my student, I realized that I didn’t have enough information to edit this properly. Because she used so many nouns here, she got away with being ambiguous. She actually hasn’t specified which protein is doing what to which other protein. So I had to go back to her and have her draw a picture for me so that I could take this sentence and substitute verbs for nouns. So I rewrote this as, during DNA damage, protein one recruits protein two and protein three, which together repress cell proliferation genes. So I’m actually being more specific in that rewrite. By turning those nouns into verbs, I was forced to give a more clear picture of what’s going on. So that’s also helpful for the reader. It avoids ambiguity. So you want to say exactly who does what to whom, and putting things in the active voice, and using verbs forces you to do so. Another common thing we do in academic writing, is we take a nice spunky verb, turn it into a boring noun, and pair it with a boring verb. We’ve seen a few examples of this already. Now, don’t ask me why we do this. It’s extremely common, but it makes very little sense. You can see things like obtained estimates of, well, estimate was a nice spunky verb which we turned into a boring noun estimate, and we and then we peered it with a weak verb, obtain. Of course we just want to turn these back into the verb form, so instead of, obtain estimates of, we should just say estimate. Has seen as expansion in, just say, has expanded. Provides a methodologic emphasis, just say, emphasizes methodology. Take an assessment of assess. I can give you lots of examples of this. So instead of, provide a review of, just say review. Offer confirmation of, just say confirm. Make a decision of, decide. Shows a peak, peaks. Provide a description of, describe. See how much better that is? There’s nothing to be gained by pairing these nice verbs with boring verbs and turning them into nouns. My final point on verbs is you don’t want to bury the main verb. What I mean by that, is you want to make sure that the main verb of the sentence, which is also called the predicate is up close to the subject, near the start of the sentence. The reason is that the readers are waiting for the verb. Until the reader gets to the verb, they don’t know where you are going. So if you put too much distance between the subject of the sentence and the main verb, you’re going to lose your reader. Here is an example to illustrate this, they call this the case of the buried predicate. The sentence is hard to read. It says, one study of 930 adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) receiving care and one of two managed care settings or in a fee-for-service setting found that only two-thirds of those needing to contact a neurologist for an MS-related problem in the prior 6 months had done so. Notice how difficult that sentence is to make sense of. The subject of the sentence is the study. Okay? But we get this long description of the study, and we don’t get to the predicate, to the main verb, until found. By the time you get to the found, you’ve lost your reader because there’s too much clutter in between the subject and the predicate of that sentence. Well there’s a simple fix for this one, okay? I fixed this one by doing nothing other than moving the verb found up. I took all of that description of the study and set it aside in commas. So I rewrote it as, one study found that, of 930 adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) who were receiving care in one of two managed care settings or in a fee for service setting, only two-thirds of those needing to contact a neurologist for an MS-related problem in the prior six months had done so. Notice how the reader’s not bothered by all of that descriptive stuff as long as the reader has already got the verb. So try to keep that verb close to the subject, near the start of the sentence. I’m going to show you some more examples of this principle in the next module.
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