Hidden Verbs Can Derail Clear Writing.

To avoid  the problem of so-called hidden verbs,  it helps to know exactly what a verb is.  Let’s go back to basics for a moment.  A verb is a word or word group which makes an assertion.  Although a verb  usually expresses action (Rain falls), it may also express being or mental state (The statement is true.  He dreams).

As explained in the  Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011, Rev. 1, May 2011, p. 23 (Guidelines),  “verbs are the fuel of writing.”  By giving sentences power and direction, they make your writing lively and more interesting.  A hidden verb is a verb converted into a noun.  It often needs an extra verb to make sense.   Hidden verbs  can be a problem  by making a verb less effective and requiring more words than otherwise needed to complete the sentence.

The easiest way around this problem is to avoid using longer words when shorter ones will suffice.  Instead of getting mired in a grammarian’s technical jargon as to whether a sentence contains a buried or hidden verb or not or whether you have turned a verb into a noun, you can train yourself to look for certain words or phrases and try to eliminate or rewrite them as the context permits.

So, for example, words ending in “tion” and “ment” can often be used in a different form without concern as to what grammatical label applies.


“You are required to apply for a fishing license,” rather than,

“You are required to make an application for a fishing license.”

In the same vein, write,

“The cutback is not to be made unless authorized,” rather than,

“You must seek authorization for the cutback before making it.”

The latter sentence in each of the two examples is less effective and uses more words than necessary to convey the same thought as in the former sentence.  The following suggestions are also illustrative:

      Avoid                                                      Use

Authorization                                           Authorize

Negotiation                                              Negotiate

Settlement                                                Settle

Litigation                                                  Litigate

Achievement                                            Achieve

In summary, a hidden verb can come in two forms.  It may have a tell-tale ending such as -ment, –tion, -sion, and -ance;  or, it may link with verbs such as achieve, effect, give, make, reach, and take.  Here are more examples:


We will make an application…

We have made a determination…

The company has reached a decision…


We applied…

We determined…

The company decided…

Find the noun and try to make it the main verb of your sentence.  As you change nouns to verbs, your writing will become more vigorous and less abstract.  It will be clearer if you say who does what.  As pointed out by attorney Bryan Garner in his able work, The Winning Brief, at p. 161, “Whenever the true verb will work in context, the better choice is to use it instead of the buried verb.”  In other words, “Use the strongest, most direct form of the verb possible.”  Guidelines, p. 23.

Copyright 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing, Writing Improvement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.