Where have all the verbs gone?

When I was in college (late 1980s), my roommate had book on his desk — it may have been The Rise and Decline of Nations. The cover always stuck with me. It showed a short, three-step platform similar to the Olympic medal stand, except it read as a staircase with one ascending step, one descending step and one apex. John Bull, the Union Jack hoisted forlornly over one shoulder, was stepping down from the apex. Uncle Sam, Stars and Stripes aloft, occupied the top. A Japanese salaryman, Rising Sun gripped in one hand, was poised on the ascending step. The image stuck with me for two reasons — first, because it’s what everyone assumed would happen in 1988; second, because it didn’t happen. So much for our prognosticative powers.

Today, the American business community still fears its fall from dominance. Millennial executives in casual shirtsleeves wring their hands over whom to watch. Will it be the Chinese? The Koreans? The Brazilians? In my estimation, it doesn’t matter. We are already on the path to inconsequence.

By “we,” I mean American corporations. The evidence of this is American corporate writing.

If words are a window into the soul, then our soul is dead — devoid of life and vigor — devoid of the simple sentence component that signals action, the verb. Have you noticed the straining effort corporate writers exert to avoid verbs? Why write “I uploaded the files using the FTP link you sent me” when you can proffer “File upload complete via FTP link per your instructions”? Even communication with customers has taken on a creepy, computery feel. I just finished a website for a global company who insisted “Please select an item by clicking on link” instead read “All item selections are via description link.” Does that sound clear to you? Does that even sound like you need to do anything? (And what’s with the abuse of the word via?)

2009 was a strange year. Some primal switch flipped in my psyche. It made me yearn for a tough, hardscrabble life where I would wrestle deer to the ground and haul the carcasses back to the cabin. It has made my wife desire a large tract of land to coax unwilling cereal grains and legumes from. We are white-collar urbanites who have never hunted or farmed or even dreamed of it. And we are not alone. More people I talk to at work and elsewhere — computer jockeys, artsy types, account managers — report the same stirring urges. Some zeitgeist is demanding action. Is it our sedentary work and lifestyle? Is it that we as a society are becoming soft, our every desire being serviced as we lounge in comfort? Is it because our institutions — our corporations, banks and governments — are failing us?

Yes to all. America was founded on risk and action. Why do we eliminate the verbs from our writing? Because of fear — fear of offending someone and fear of demanding action. Deleting our verbs means obliterating our essence. “I think, therefore I am,” but also “I am, therefore I act.” So 2010 brings a new manifesto to Lexicide: Resist! Act! Write! In doing so, we can fulfill E. M. Forster’s plea to “Connect! Only Connect!”

5 thoughts on “Where have all the verbs gone?

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