Online articles, commentaries, papers
Navigation links at the bottom of the page

Weighty words vs words of action

For all the influence computers, electronic gadgetry and the visual images of television have on contemporary society, language remains the main means by which the world communicates. We rely on verbal imagery to convey our thoughts. By imagery I mean expressing thoughts and ideas by painting word pictures. We convert abstract thought into verbal images by the use of metaphor and simile, which are among the basic tools of the written and spoken word.
To write of 'basic tools' of the written and spoken word is to use a metaphor. That is, to write of tools, which are real and objective, is to use a metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech applied to an idea or thought to which it does not apply in a literal sense, but in some way suggests a resemblance.
In contrast, a simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is likened unto another as in, for example, 'Her lips are like a red red rose.'
The use of metaphor and simile are as important to non-fiction as to fiction writing. The best writers use these two important figures of speech constantly. The effect is to stimulate, inspire and motivate the reader. Use of the same imagery is difficult if not impossible with the use of abstract language employing weighty words that crush the intellect and hinder the reader's understanding. Consider the following statements taken from technical reports ask yourself what images they evoke:
  • Responsibilities are clearly established for the multiple organizational arrangements;
  • The environmental transfer model, its applicability and limitations ... are discussed; and
  • The type of work to be carried out in the fume hood will dictate whether it is more appropriate to have the controls for fume hood services, such as water and gas, inside or outside the fume hood.
There is neither metaphor nor simile in any of these statements. The writing is flat and uninteresting; it lacks freshness and originality. The word cliché describes that type of stereotyped language, anything that is hackneyed and stale from overuse: right as rain, black as coal, hard as nails, dry as dust. Conversely, the member of a committee who might perhaps say, 'We limp from crisis to crisis on the crutches of hope' would be sure to arrest the attention of the committee. The limp does not exist in reality, nor can one literally support hope with crutches. The speaker's meaning however is vivid and unmistakable.
Ernest Hemingway the novelist (For Whom the Bell Tolls) was a master of simple and expressive language. This explains why experts on language use Hemingway's writing as a yardstick to measure the strength of writing. Compare the average technical report with the language James Gleick uses to explain the new science of chaos:

'His plan was to create convection in the liquid by making the bottom plate warmer than the top plate.'

In a Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking writes:

'If one looks at the sky on a clear, moonless night the brightest objects one sees ... etc.'

Words and the way we use them, as earlier noted, are the bricks of language (an example of the use of metaphor). Short, monosyllabic words are strong. Long, polysyllabic words are weak. Short sentences are strong. Long sentences lack strength. Short words and short sentences are compact and give language the strength of dense wood having short fibres.

The cuckoo lays its egg in the nests of other birds. When the chick hatches it kicks the other birds out of the nest to hog the attention of its foster parents. In the same way, words and phrases of language are often brutally ousted from their rightful places by what are best described as bandit words and phrases, which result from word inflation. This is the practice of making ridiculously large words out of respectable small ones, which is, increasingly, a feature of technical writing that emerges from the applied sciences.


By tacking 'izing', 'ization', 'ability' and like extensions on to simple words, the confusion puts rational thought beyond the understanding of the reader. For example, a system becomes 'systematized'; a function is 'functionalized' or 'functionalization' can be said to have occurred to become possible. We could also allude to the 'functionalizationability' of a system. In more rational language, this would be the degree to which a system can be divided into functions. In many corporate documents that have come to us for comment and editing such phrases as 'the auditization function' are common. By 'auditization' the writer simply means 'audit', but cannot bring himself or herself to rely on so short a word. It has to be pumped up and inflated to lend the document gravitas in the writer's search for high seriousness.
By treating words in this fashion they are crushed under the weight of suffixes and prefixes until they become so abstract as to lose their roots in reality. Options are 'optimized' and priorities 'prioritized' out of existence by thoughtless writers who are more concerned with impression than expression. The same writers like to 'initiate initiatives', 'prioritize priorities' and 'impact around their areas of concern'.
Impact is a choice cuckoo word that has kicked the word effect out of the nest. If one thinks about it, impact is what happens when a ball hammer smashes into a building and sends plaster, bricks and concrete flying in all directions. As used in 'The impact of his fist striking the winder pane was shattering', impact is a powerful word. One can hear and see the glass splintering under the force of the blow. By the same reasoning, 'negative impact' conveys no image whatsoever. If one considers what is meant when a politician describes something as having 'a negative impact on the economy' - as reported of a speaker in the news media - word imagery is absent. 'A negative effect on the economy' would be more accurate. This is not a sophistic, hair-splitting objection. It is a more precise use of language, which is most powerful when used to convey striking images in the mind of the reader or, in oral delivery, the listener.
To this end, 'find out' is better than 'ascertain'; 'start' is a stronger word than 'initiate'; 'about' is better than 'approximately'; 'try' is sturdier than 'endeavour'; and 'stop' is superior to 'discontinue'. There are numerous examples from which to choose. There is no claim that the words here discarded have no place in the language; they do, but the discriminate writer will chose with care where they are most effective to use. The main difference between the word pair examples given here is a preference for the simple Anglo-Saxon over its Romance equivalent.
Nor is the preference to suggest that 'ascertain', 'initiate', 'approximately', 'endeavour' and 'discontinue' should not be used. Each has its place in the language. Most technical subjects however are dense enough to warrant use of the simplest language at the writer's command.
Finally, it is worth discussing as a reminder of their importance two classes of words that stand head and shoulders about other classes. These are the 'noun' and the 'verb'.


Every language has names for persons, places and things. We call this class of words nouns. In English, proper names take upper case initial letters; all other nouns are written in lower case unless used to begin a sentence. Those who write any form of technical literature - reports, manuals, specifications, industry standards - should always be aware of the difference between proper nouns and all other nouns.
Some writers render management positions with initial upper case letters as though to confer prestige and dignity to the word. This is a mistake. Such words as director, manager, superintendent and supervisor take lower case initial letters, barring those that begin a sentence, unless reference is being made to a particular person or position such as, for example, Director of Manufacturing Operations.
Words that stand in place of nouns are called pronouns: 'she', 'he', 'him', 'her' etc. The class of word that describes a noun is the adjective.


A verb describes or signifies action: stand, sit, go, sleep. Words that add information to verbs are adverbs - all very simple and straightforward. Verbs give action to the language. They make it live because they are the muscles, the tendons, that ligaments of language. (Are those metaphors or similes?). Verbs make the nouns and modifiers move. They get the meaning across and pull you out of the morass that compound nouns and Latin derivatives pull you into. Properly used, they break up long, involved paragraphs.
Regard the verb as your lifetime. It's a marvellously versatile tool. It can get you out of all kinds of trouble. If you're bogged down in an explanation, go for shorter sentences. Shorter sentences mean more verbs that help you avoid awkward nounal constructions.
What is a 'nounal construction'? It is a word that does service as a noun. 'Come to a determination' is a nounal phrase in which 'determination' is the noun, which stands for a person, place or thing, remember. That is, one will come to a person, place or thing called determination. (Anyone familiar with Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress will recall Mr. Standfast, Christian and other worthy souls whose determining characteristics became their names.) This is a nounal construction that stands in place of 'determine' or, more simply, the verb 'to decide'. The phrase 'management decided' is more direct, active and lively than 'Management came to a determination'.
Similarly, and for variation, to speak and write of 'the decision-making process' again ignores the essential verb 'decide'. In this case, process (meaning manner, rule, procedure) is the noun and 'decision-making' an adjectival phrase. As a result, 'the decision-making process' is stillborn and, with no verb to give it the breath of life, it will remain lifeless.
You can say what you mean with verbs. You cannot say what you mean without them. One of the best examples is in the use of definitions. Try defining something without using a verb. You will often point to something to show what you mean. For example, how would you define red? The easiest way is to tell your questioner to look at traffic lights when next at an intersection. When alight, the uppermost light is red.
What is a mother? A mother is a female parent, you say, but that is not a clear definition. It invites another question. What is a parent? To define mother as a female parent you use a nounal construction: 'parent' (noun), 'female' (adjective), meaning the kind of parent to which one refers. Better to use verbs to define the word. 'The male and female of the species procreate to have children. The female gives birth to the baby and is the mother.' Verbs define the mother, not nouns.
Using verbal constructs is one of the most important things any writer can put in her or his bag of tricks. You cannot write anything with definitions of some kind. Do not offer other constructions to do so; describe the operation. If you do you cannot avoid writing in the active voice. To write actively means that action must occur; make someone do something. Remember The (definite article) cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat.
The physicist P. W. Bridgeman said, 'We mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations.' In the context of defining mother, what she is (the definition) is synonymous with what she does (the corresponding set of operations).
You might think that this approach to writing will make what you write more involved and difficult. It won't. It will make it simpler, even shorter. Why do we so often head for the nouns first and, when we start thinking about something, leave the verbs out? It is because we think in concepts, which we seem to think must be expressed in condensed captions. 'Assessment report', 'Decision analysis summary', 'Client-server approach', etc. It does not matter why we express ourselves and think in concepts this way. Recorgnize that when we do, we erect barriers to understanding.
Go for the action, the verbs. People who work in the applied sciences should know this better than anyone else. They should study newspaper headlines, which almost always have someone doing something or give a clear indication of action. Action is where the heat is, for where there is action there is energy and, where energy is being generated, expended or exchanged there is heat. Give your language action too. Verbs can demystify language as efficiently as the electronic calculator demystified mathematics for those who found the slide rule too hard to use.
This has a strong bearing on what you write. People who read what you write, trust you to tell them what you have to say with an economy of language. They expect you to inform them, explain, draw conclusions they can follow, and recommend what action be taken. Get to the heart of the matter with short, active statements using verbs. Write declarative statements: 'The annunicator panel shows you when conditions are not as they should be', 'The EMERGENCY STOP pushbutton is a protective device', 'A design review is a condition of obtaining a medical accelerator licence.'

Delta Tech Systems Inc
Duke of York's Royal Military School
Royal Hibernian Military School
Reminiscences of a Queen's Army  Schoolmistress
World War I - The war to end all wars
Books and Militaria
Publications and Papers
Wellington on Waterloo
Related Links

© A. W. Cockerill 2005

Site Map     Contact me