Revising for Conciseness > Verbal Style

 

 

In the previous section on clarity, we pointed out that eliminating strings of prepositional phrases often involves turning nouns into verbs or verbal forms. Some of the examples we presented involved changing the completion of to complete, the reassignment of to reassigning, and the rewarding of to rewarding. In each case, we created a more verbal style by eliminating unnecessary nominalizations. A nominalization is the noun form of a word that also has a verb form. For example, completion and reassignment are nouns corresponding to the verbs complete and reassign. The following diagram illustrates the pattern for verbal style.

Overuse of nominalizations is widespread in technical writing, affecting both clarity and conciseness. But note that the noun forms of verbs are also very useful for communicating abstract concepts. While you cannot eliminate nominalizations, you should limit their use.


bullet Noun-based Style vs. Verb-based Style
bullet Nominal/Verbal Continuum
bullet Some Pointers
bullet Start the Style Exercise for Verbal Style


Noun-based Style vs. Verb-based Style

The following intentionally exaggerated example compares the differences between texts written in the noun-based and verb-based styles.* The noun forms in the noun-based example and corresponding verb forms in the verb-based example are highlighted in red.

Noun-based Style Verb-based Style
Everything today has the requirement of the conformity of people to some standard. There is the requirement to be similar in their speech and in their beliefs. If you have different ideas, people have the thought you are odd. Our fear stops the expression of our thoughts about our surroundings. We must have a resemblance to our neighbours or friends. Because there is so little we can do to be individuals, it is my thought that we would commit an error by the imposition of a dress standard on students. It would be a loss to their expression of individuality.

(100 words)

Everything today requires people conform to some standard. Similarity is required in how they speak and what they believe. If your ideas differ, people think you are odd. We fear expressing what we think about our surroundings. We must resemble our neighbours or friends. Because there is so little we can do to be individuals, I think we would err by imposing a dress standard on students. They would lose a way to express individuality.

(75 words)

Note that the revised version cuts 25 percent of the words without eliminating content. Also note that some of the nominalizations in the above example are preceded by an article (a, an, the) and followed by a preposition (typically, of.)

*Adapted from R. L. Hake & J. M. Williams, "Style and Its Consequences," College English, 43, 1981, 448-449. Used with permission.

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Nominal/Verbal Continuum

Developing a verbal style is not just a matter of revising for nominalizations, but of revising to move from a reliance on nouns and adjectives toward a reliance on verbs, verbals, and adverbs. Think of this move in terms of a continuum with nouns at one end and verbs at the other, as presented in the following figure.

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Some Pointers

1. Look for the articles and prepositions that accompany nouns (especially of).

2. Transform nouns to verbs wherever possible.

3. Avoid combining a noun-based style, heavy use of prepositions, and the passive voice because this particular combination is very difficult for readers.

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  Exercise
In the following examples, note how the revisions become more verbal by changing nouns and adjectives into verbs, verbals, and adverbs. In the first example, also note the article-noun-preposition pattern discussed above.
Hint
1. Original:
The removal of reduced sulphur compounds from in-mill processes and the prevention of anaerobic formation of reduced sulphur compounds will improve both air and effluent quality. (26 words)
1. Hinted:
The removal of reduced sulphur compounds from in-mill processes and the prevention of anaerobic formation of reduced sulphur compounds will improve both air and effluent quality. (26 words)
1. Revised:
Explanation
In this case, we simply replaced nominalizations with verbal forms. A saving of four words may not seem worth the effort, but note that the revised version is somewhat clearer and easier to read. Because frequent small changes of this nature add up, what appears as an insignificant change in a single sentence can make a significant difference when repeated throughout a document.

Also consider conciseness from the readerís perspective. Because readers can process information more quickly and easily when it is presented in a verbal style, they will perceive the document as shorter or more concise because they can read it relatively quickly. In terms of revising strategies, clarity and conciseness are often two sides of the same coin.




The next example demonstrates another common feature of a noun-based style:
Hint
2. Original:
Our request is that on your return, you conduct a review of the data and provide an immediate report. (19 words)
2. Hinted:
Our request is that on your return, you conduct a review of the data and provide an immediate report. (19 words)
2. Revised:
Explanation
In the original, possessive pronouns (our, your) precede a nominalization. When these possessive pronouns are replaced by subjects (we, you), our request is becomes we request and on your return becomes when you return. Also note how the verbs conduct and provide are unnecessary once the nominalization is identified.



The next example indicates just how much of a habit the use of a noun-based style becomes for some writers:
Hint
3. Original:
Many engineering personnel have made comments regarding a lack of knowledge about what new information is available in the library as literature is filed into the library without any sort of notification. (32 words)
3. Hinted:
Many engineering personnel have made comments regarding a lack of knowledge about what new information is available in the library as literature is filed into the library without any sort of notification. (32 words)
3. Revised:
Explanation
In this case, we can omit made and convert the noun comments into the verb commented. Note that we also converted without any sort of notification to not being notified and eliminated the redundant phrase, regarding a lack of knowledge. Simply by revising for nominalizations, we have cut the number of words in half without affecting the meaning.