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Down with nouns!

Joe Moran, the author of First You Write a Sentence. hates how people abuse nouns, sometimes abetted by the passive voice.

He says Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann defended himself at the Nuremberg War Trials “With an impenetrable shield of nouns.” For example, “He described his role as ‘emigration specialist.’ The Auschwitz death trains were ‘evacuation transport.’ ”

That’s not just using nouns, it’s using nouns that obscure the true meaning—they’re euphemisms.

Nouns shed responsibility

Moran dislikes noun-heavy writing:

In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x. These words are not even trying to illuminate; they are immunizing themselves against the world. The aim, even if unknown to the writer, is to bore the reader into not looking closely at the words. Instead of inviting a response, as writing should, it shuts it down.

Verbs bring writing to life

The solution to “nouny writing” is to “disinter the buried verbs and bring them back to life by reverbing them,” says Moran. He believes in “restoring the proper links between the nouns by adding verbs and prepositions, even if this means using more words.”

Moran sets the bar high, saying that writers should use strong verbs to connect the nouns. That means limiting use of forms of the verb “to be” and of the passive voice.

“The passive voice thwarts our healthy desire to ascribe acts to actors and give events a sense of verbal drive,” Moran says. Ooh, I like the verb “thwart”! One-syllable words tend to be stronger. (Of course, “be” is a big exception.) Still, he sees a use for the passive voice, which is sometimes “more truthful.”

Moran is a big fan of verbs, saying “put them next to other words and they are as life-giving to the sentence as light and air to the world.”

Nouns versus verbs

“Nouns and verbs are the two poles of the sentence. Nouns keep it still; verbs make it move,” says Moran. In the end, “Every sentence has to mix the right blend of nouns and verbs.”

 

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Singular or plural–which is right for $5 million?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. Take this example “$5 million was/were enough.”

When I informally polled some writer friends, four out of five voted for “was.” That sounds right to me, too.

The word “dollars” is plural, but “$5 million” becomes what grammarians call a collective noun.

Think of it this way, a portfolio management team is made up of people, but the team is a single entity so you say “The team was” instead of “The team were.”

On collective nouns, a Grammar Girl blog post written by Bonnie Trenga says the following:

Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

However, as one of my friends and the Grammar Girl blog pointed out, the British treat collective nouns differently. They combine them with plural verbs. No wonder some of us are confused!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net