Concrete Verbs, Abstract Nouns

Want to describe abstract business concepts in a more understandable way? Start by revving up your verbs.

For those of you that don’t read grammar texts for fun, a verb is a word that describes an action. Verbs enact mundane tasks: sweeping, adding, seeing. They also perform exciting ones: diving, leaping, accelerating.

Verbs are also the most important words in a sentence. After all, nouns—words that describe a person, places or things—just sit around and do nothing. If your nouns are pieces on a chessboard, it’s the verbs that actually move them around to play the game. Without verbs, nothing gets done.

Every sentence, good and bad, has a verb lurking somewhere inside. But when we use unclear verbs, or when we hide verbs by nesting them in layer upon layer of modifiers and auxiliaries, we take the clarity out of our sentences. On the other hand, when we use clear, action-oriented verbs, you can instantly power up your writing, turning unclear copy into prose that’s clear and actionable.

So what are you saying?

When you write, prefer concrete verbs over abstract verbs.

Concrete verbs describe very literal action. They whiz, bang, and pop. When you pair a concrete verb with a concrete noun, you can see the action in your head. A red ball bouncing on the street. A crow perching on a branch. A snowflake melting on your lover’s nose.

An abstract verb, on the other hand, describes a theoretical action. When you pair an abstract noun with an abstract verb, you’re describing ideas. In cases like these, you can’t see the action. We gain customer buy-in. We ballpark a figure. We investigate the pros and cons of a new product.

In writing, concrete beats abstract. Concrete verbs show readers what’s happening, instead of describing it to them. They hold our attention, and help us understand the sentence better.

Understand is the key word. If you want your bosses to understand your views, if you want your customer to understand why they should choose your services, or if you want your employees to understand why they should clean out the fridge on Friday, then concrete verbs will get you there before an abstract verb can put its boots on.

Where’s the fix?

But how do we use strong verbs for business terms? It’s easy to pair concrete verbs with concrete nouns: anyone can write “the ball bounced,” “the runner gasped,” “the chairs tumbled,” because concrete nouns can’t really do much else. I don’t see many wine glasses pontificating.

So how can we use concrete verbs when the nouns we work with are all abstract? Nouns like customer satisfaction, ROI, and investor buy-in?

Well, it’s difficult. Sorry. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In my own editorial experience, I’ve found two easy ways to brainstorm for concrete words.

The first technique is to brainstorm words that have to do with motion. The second is to brainstorm words that have to do with bodily conditions.

Let’s talk about motion first. Verbs involving motion are your friends: ricochet, plummet, and balloon, for instance, are better ways to describe stock than ones like vary, lower, and increase. The concrete verbs provide visual cues to help rouse emotions in the reader. We can “see” motion verbs easily.

As for bodily conditions, verbs that match up with things that our bodies do, or things that happen to our bodies, are relatable. Verbs like “swallow,” “fracture,” or “pound,” are better than “absorb,” “divide,” or “cause harm to” when describing, say, a company merger or takeover.

What do you think of these differences?

Our customer loyalty switch back and forth between us and our competitors.

Our customers bounce between us and our competitors.

Expert opinion varies between whether or not we should make this decision.

Expert opinion wanders around the subject, but doesn’t dig up any answers.

Customer engagement exceeded our expectations.

Customer engagement rose above our expectations.

It might seem like a bunch of tiny gripes, but when you mass them together, these minor details can tone up your sentences and get your readers running to act on your words.

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