Don’t Commit Verbicide

June 1, 2017

In the late 1920s, Mabel Vogel and Carleton Washburne became the first researchers to statistically correlate writing traits with readability.
One of their most interesting findings: The more verbs in a story, the easier it is to read.

In fact, they found that increasing the amount of verbs in your writing is one of the top 10 things — specifically, it’s number six — you can do to make your message more readable.

Verbs make words shorter and more recognizable. Short, familiar words are one of the top two predictors of readability, according to 70 years of research. Verbs also simplify sentences. Subject-verb-object is the easiest sentence structure to read and understand.

So how can you avoid verbicide and boost reading ease?

1. Search and destroy Latinized suffixes.

Latinized suffixes — think -able, -ance, -ate, -ity, -ive, -ment, and –tion — turn verbs into nouns and short words into long ones. So instead of:

“We aim to help improve our company’s processes.”

You end up with:

“It is the intention of this team to facilitate the improvement of our company’s processes.”

So, search for Latinized suffixes: When you find them, see whether you can turn your stuffy noun back into an active verb.

2. Reverbify nouns.

When you write in verbs, you make words shorter, sentences simpler and copy brisker. This sentence, for instance, weighs in at an average of 7.0 characters per word:

“This report explains our investment growth stimulation projects.”

If you reverbify some of these nouns, you can bring that average down to 5.9 characters per word:

“This report explains our projects to stimulate growth in investments.”

Stop smothering your verbs. Unpack nominalizations to make your copy crisp, clean and active.

3. Stop ing-ing.

Barney Kilgore, the legendary editor of The Wall Street Journal, was famous for telling his newsroom staff: “If I see ‘upcoming’ slip in[to] the paper again, I’ll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”

Verbs ending in “-ing” are either gerunds or participles. Get rid of them.

  • Reverbify gerunds. Gerunds are verbs that get turned into nouns: “Writing is fun.” “Instead of ‘We had a meeting,’ try ‘We met,’” writes poet Donald Hall. “We save three syllables; we add vitality.”
  • Reverbify present participles. Participles are progressive verbs, as in “I am writing.” Drop the present participle and write in the simple present or past tense: “I write” or “I wrote.” That gets rid of your “to be” verb, puts more action in your sentence and shaves off a syllable.

One more reason to focus on verbs: The human brain thinks about action, not things.

“We habitually think of the brain, ours and the reader’s, as being the organ of thought and emotion,” says Jon Franklin, author of “Writing for Story” and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. “But when neuroanatomists examine its wiring, it turns out that it’s at least 95 percent or more devoted to movement…Human thoughts, all but the tiny minority of philosophical thoughts, are centered on action.”

If you center your message on action, too, you’ll clear out the clutter from your copy and reach readers where their brains are. 


Copyright © 2017 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.


Cut Through the Clutter

Would you like to learn to make every piece you write easier to read and understand? If so, join Wylie at Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day Master Class on Aug. 17–18 in San Francisco. PRSA members: Save $100 with coupon code PRSA17.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie ( works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at


Michael F. Grimaldi says:

This column is to good writing what the Book of Genesis is to the Bible. Thanks, Ann!

June 6, 2017

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