Real verbs – or how not to write like a bureaucrat

In a recent post on his Manage Your Writing blog, Kenneth W. Davis discusses the distinction between “real” verbs and “filler” verbs.

Davis rightly points out that a sentence such as “the committee reached an agreement on the project” is much better expressed as “the committee agreed on the project”. As he says, “The committee didn’t reach; it agreed. Reached is a filler verb; the real verb, agree, has been changed into the noun agreement.”

It reminded me of how bad business writing – otherwise known as corporatese – is awash with filler verbs. In fact, whenever I’m asked to edit a business document I rewrite the copious “filler verb + noun” constructions almost on autopilot.

In my experience, the top four filler verbs used in business writing are: “driving”, “delivering”, “focusing on” and “achieving”. Typical examples might be:

- Driving improvements in the business (“improving the business”)
- Delivering change across the firm (“changing the firm”)
- Focusing on co-operation with other teams (“co-operating with other teams”)
- Achieving success (“succeeding”)

I assume that business types like to think that such filler verbs make them sound like focused, dynamic people of action, who can be trusted to do what they say they’ll do.

But to get an idea of just how redundant those filler verbs are, simply switch the phrases around. Is there any real difference between “driving” improvements and “focusing on” them? Or “achieving” success and “delivering” it?

In contrast to the writer’s intentions, these filler verbs make for clunky text that distracts from the very sense of action and dynamism that the writer wants to convey.

For example, doesn’t “driving improvements” suggest a reluctance to roll one’s sleeves up and get on with the job of improving things? That your mode of operation is to sit behind your desk cracking the whip? That you’re more concerned with being seen to be a leader than with actually improving things?

Similarly, doesn’t “focusing on co-operation with other teams” have a whiff of the working group about it? Of Co-operation Sub-Committees for the Implementation of a Cross-Team Co-Colleague Co-operation Framework? Of Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations designed to highlight the key attributes of better co-operation, which will, no doubt, be implemented in stages over a six-month period, subject to approval by the relevant authorities?

Perhaps to some, focusing on co-operation looks much more impressive in their annual review than actually picking up the phone to a colleague in another department to ask their advice or to give them a lead on a potential deal.

But if you’re a person of action who’d rather not sound like a stodgy, behind-the-times bureaucrat, drop these corporate filler verbs from your vocabulary today. And next time you’re editing a your own writing, take a pen and highlight every instance of “deliver”, “drive”, “focus on” and “achieve”, then replace them with real verbs.

Unless, of course, it’s for a presentation to the Co-operation Sub-Committee . . .

3 Responses to “Real verbs – or how not to write like a bureaucrat”

  1. Zoe says:

    I remember during university years being instructed to inject my resume with “action verbs.” This advice usually translated into these exact filler verbs you’ve discussed here… Are the people reading resumes really that dumb that they’ll mistake the word “drive” to be more active than “change?” I think (hope?) not. I’m glad to see you agree!

  2. clare says:

    Sounds like your tutors understood the job market completely – and that, yes, so many business types seem to be taken in by these words!

  3. [...] 43. Deliver Business people, if there’s one thing you can do to instantly sound more articulate, it’s to ditch this stupid word that you’d never contemplate using outside of the office. Do you “deliver love” to your kids? Or do you simply “love” them? Do you relax by “delivering cooking”? Or do you simply “cook”? Then why are you still delivering change/success/innovation and a whole host of other abstract nouns? And by the way, the addition of the word “on” or “against” after “deliver” doesn’t make you sound more impressive either. [...]

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