Business writers, here’s why you really need to master the parts of speech

Nouns. Verbs. Adjectives. Pronouns. Only grammar geeks need to care about them, right?

Wrong.

If you want your business writing to zing, you need to know about these different “parts of speech” (as we say in the trade).

Why? Because certain parts of speech are much more common in clunky corpspeak than others. So knowing how to slant your writing away from certain types of words can make a big difference to what your reader thinks of your writing style.

Let’s take a look at the same two pieces of writing we put through Word’s readability tool last week. The first extract comes from a well-known management consultancy. The second is the same text translated into something more readable.

Leverage analytics to drive prediction
Use predictive analytics as a decision support tool to drive a forward-looking analysis of scenarios, response effectiveness, and critical correlations that can complicate or escalate events. Better understanding of the drivers of extreme events, whether external developments or internal process interactions, can help build a robust, flexible and dynamic crisis management program. The objective for enhanced analytics is not to predict events, but to help companies develop more meaningful warning indicators, and an increased awareness of their leverage in preventing or managing ‘runaway’ crises.

Learn from the past
If you know what causes crises, you can prepare for them. So analyse what’s happened in the past to help you predict what might happen in the future. It will let you spot the warning signs that a crisis is unfolding, so you can stop it escalating or even happening at all.

As we’ll see, there are big differences in each writer’s use of the four different parts of speech mentioned above: nouns, verbs, adjectives and one particular pronoun.

Examining these differences offers valuable lessons about why one of these writers is much more readable than the other.

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Nouns

These are the “person, place or thing” words. Examples from our texts include analytics, correlations, awareness and crises.

The figures

Well-known management consultancy’s version: 30 nouns (34% of the whole)

Doris and Bertie’s version: 7 nouns (12.5% of the whole)

Here, we’ve greyed out the nouns to give you a visual representation of the relative noun-heaviness of each text:

What the figures tell us

Nouns are to writing what your bones are to your body: they provide essential structure, but use too many and your prose will lack dynamism. It will be dry and clunky. Ossified, if you like (from the Latin os, meaning bone).

There’s a reason we chose grey to illustrate all the nouns in these pieces. The figures suggest the original is 21.5% greyer than our rewrite.

Lessons

Don’t cluster your nouns
Avoid using groups of nouns together as they can make your writing hard to read. Ploughing through concatenations of nouns like decision support tool or crisis management program feels like the literary equivalent of clambering over rocks.

At the very least, rather than saying crisis management program, why not say a program for managing crises? Breaking up the cluster of nouns with a simple for gives your audience room to breathe.

Learn to spot abstract nouns
Abstract nouns are nouns denoting intangible things, such as ideas and feelings. They’re absolutely rife in corpspeak and are one reason why business writing is often so awful. For some hints on how to identify them, see Ditch your communications strategy and just talk.

Be specific
Using too many abstract nouns is often a sign of a writer mired in the pseudo-academic language of corporate strategising. Root your writing in specifics and your reader will find it much easier to picture what you’re talking about.

For example, what exactly is a decision support tool? Is it a computer programme? A mind-map? A coin to be tossed?

Similarly, what do response effectiveness and process interactions actually look like?

If you can’t answer these questions, it’s entirely possible you don’t understand what you’re talking about (so imagine how your poor reader feels).

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Verbs

Verbs are the “doing” or “action” words. Examples from our texts include use, build and predict.

The figures

Well-known management consultancy’s version: 15 verbs (17% of the whole)

Doris and Bertie’s version: 20 verbs (89% of the whole)

And here’s how relatively “verby” the two texts look:

What the figures tell us

Because verbs are “action” words, they give your writing dynamism, a sense of movement. So if nouns are the bones of your prose, the verbs are its muscle: they power your writing forward.

The figures show our rewrite has 72% more muscle than the original – a figure we wish we could achieve in the gym!

Lessons

Use verbs instead of nouns
If you’ve begun to hunt down and eliminate your nouns, you’re already on the way to more muscular prose, because you’ll have had little choice but to replace many of them with verbs. For example, a phrase such as understanding of xyz will have become If you understand xyz.

Use real verbs
Learn to spot dead verbs favoured by bad business writers, such as drive, deliver, focus on and commit to. They’re clichés that give an artificial gloss of dynamism, but actually weigh your writing down. Compare the wordy drive an analysis with the simpler, punchier analyse.

Don’t turn nouns into verbs
Those of us with delicate writerly ears will wince if you try to turn nouns into verbs. So ditch jargony non-words like actioned, tasked and (ugh) impacted.

In our piece above, leverage breaks this rule. It’s a noun that can be used as a verb, but only in the specialist financial sense of to borrow money to increase the return on an investment. Its pairing with a word like analytics confuses rather than clarifies.

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Adjectives

Adjectives are “describing” words. They modify nouns by giving extra information about the noun in question. That might mean specifying quantity (more houses), size (big houses), colour (red face) or quality (funny face).

If nouns are the bones and verbs the muscle, then adjectives are the fat: a sprinkling can add a healthy roundness to your writing, but overdo them and your prose starts to look flabby. Examples from our texts include critical, better and extreme.

The figures

Well-known management consultancy’s version: 15 adjectives (17% of the whole)

Doris and Bertie’s version: 0 adjectives (0% of the whole)

Here’s how lingusitically flabby (or lean) each piece looks:

What the figures tell us

Oh, dear. If adjectives are the fat, one of these authors needs to go on a serious diet! There’s a reason we chose that colour to highlight the adjectives – ever heard of “purple prose”?

Lessons

Cut out nouns
The author of the original used many more nouns than us, so it’s hardly surprising he or she also used more adjectives – as adjectives describe nouns.

Avoid tautology
Don’t say the same thing twice in different words. In our original text, the adjectives predictive and forward-looking mean the same thing, don’t they?

In fact, look closely at that first clause: Use predictive analytics … to drive a forward-looking analysis. It seems to be saying predict stuff so you can predict stuff. All very circular!

Tautological pairs of adjectives are rife in business writing – think of new and innovative, bespoke and customised and a worldwide, global business. Ban such pairings from your workplace.

Develop an ear for corporate cliché
Take, for example, that adjective meaningful, used to describe warning indicators in the first text above. Is there any less meaningful word than this? Yet you find it peppered throughout corporate prose. (If you can tell us what a meaningless warning might be, do say in the comments).

Ditto that euphemistic cliché that is enhanced. What a business really means by this adjective is improved or better but that might imply that there was something wrong with what they had before and that would be an admission of weakness, wouldn’t it?

Take a tip from us: your audience probably isn’t as gullible as you think.

Tone it down
You really don’t need to throw every positive adjective you know at a noun. Take, for example, robust, flexible and dynamic crisis management. Were all three adjectives really necessary? Are we not intelligent enough to understand that perhaps robustness requires flexibility? Or that flexibility requires some dynamism? See here for another embarrassing example of adjectivitis.

Learn to spot hyperbolic adjectives and pin above your desk a list of those most overused by marketers – such as ultimate, exciting, iconic and innovative.

Delete or be specific
The author of the original text contrasted external and internal sources of calamity. But do we really need it spelling out that crises can come from both outside and inside the organisation?

And anyway, if you’re going to mention this idea, wouldn’t it have been better to give us some examples of both sorts?

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You

You is the second-person pronoun, a fondness for which is one of the defining characteristics of a copywriter.

The figures

Well-known management consultancy’s version: 0 instances of you (0% of the whole)

Doris and Bertie’s version: 4 instances of you (7% of the whole)

Here’s what that looks like

What the figures tell us

There’s a reason you is so beloved by copywriters: it’s an incredibly powerful word. Use it and you’re addressing your reader directly. You’re signalling that your words are relevant to them, rather than being about hypotheticals. Yet again, it’s about being specific, not abstract.

If finding the right balance of nouns, verbs and adjectives gives your writing a gym-fit body, then using you gives it a sparkling personality.

The word you provides the charisma that makes your reader feel like you care about what concerns them.

What you can do

Use verbs not nouns
Notice how all those uses of you are paired with a verb (you know, you predict, you spot, you can)? So if you’ve followed our advice so far and increased your verb count, your copy is probably already on the way to being more reader-focused.

Count your uses of you/your (and I/me/us/we)
In any piece of business writing, the words you and yours should occur more often than I, me, us or we.

Think about it: who would you rather sit next to at a dinner party? The person who talks about nothing but how great they are? Or the person who asks you about you and your life? Business writing is the same.

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So next time you write a piece you’re not entirely happy with, why not run it through the Doris and Bertie readability test. Highlight all the uses of each of the four parts of speech we’ve discussed above – and see if you can tweak the figures to make your writing kinder to your reader.

22 Responses to “Business writers, here’s why you really need to master the parts of speech”

  1. Excellent piece. It’s a business-writing workshop all on its own. What a great idea to pick apart a bad example and its clearer rewrite.

    I’ve linked to this on my Facebook page (http://tiny.cc/2bks3) as the writing tip of the day. Many thanks – you’ve given a wealth of good advice.

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Thank you, Rachel. I am planning to develop a workshop based on it!

  3. I have to say, Clare, this is a really well-written piece. It’s long enough that everything is explained properly and the reader gets a full analysis, but short enough that they don’t lose interest. I’m impressed and jealous.

  4. erik says:

    Good article. However, “you” is the second-person pronoun, not the third-person.

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for pointing that out, Erik – corrected now. Two of us missed it – and we both study languages. It happens to the best of us. By the way, do you fancy any proof-reading work?

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Why, thank you, Will. If it’s any consolation, it took me a while to write.

  7. Sara says:

    Genius, Clare! Love the bones/muscle/fat analogies. I see this kind of dreary corp-speak every day, so you’ve given me inspiration to yet again explain why all those nouns and cliches have to go.

  8. Jo Murphy says:

    Reading this I started to sweat about my own blog posts and work! All of the above is spot on and it’s great to be reminded of how and why we copywriters do what we do.

  9. Andy Ford says:

    Great article. I hope there are some interpretation copywiters reading this. I’m tired of bland and boring panels and leaflets with lots of academics satisfying their vanity by telling us a great many things in a language none of use.

  10. In a sense the original is almost perfect. It’s one failing is demonstrated by the fact that you extracted meaning from it.

    You make the mistake of thinking of words as a window through we shine light on each other’s thoughts. Such paragraphs are in fact big, fluffy double duvets (and about as transparent). Their purpose is not to enlighten the reader but wrap him and the writer together in a warm, unthreatening snugness.

    It’s only message is: “I am like you. I think like you. I talk like you. When we meet we will be wearing similar suits and complementary ties. When we do businesses together you will look good but I will reinforce, not threaten, your complacency.”

    Sometimes, writing exists not to express your thoughts but to hide their absence.

  11. […] Clare analysed and rewrote a passage of bad business writing, providing some excellent advice in the […]

  12. […] our previous posts on readability and the parts of speech and what readability scores can and can’t tell you, we looked at two pieces of […]

  13. […] and “historical”, you should use “past”. Better still, ditch all those abstract nouns (“margins”, “result”, “clearance”, “overbuys”, […]

  14. […] Lesson: Break out of the corporate language rut and ditch dead verbs. […]

  15. […] Lesson: Break out of the corporate language rut and ditch dead verbs. […]

  16. […] more on this, here’s one of the best articles I’ve come across on the use of nouns and verbs (and other parts of speech) in business […]

  17. Elaine Swift says:

    Excellent post! One of the best things on writing I’ve read in ages. Thank you.

  18. I, too, love the analogy of bones, fat and muscle.

    I love your article, but I am going to play devil’s advocate here and try and shed light on, what I suspect might be behind the original text. (Particularly the use of overlapping adjectives in the phrase “robust, flexible and dynamic”).

    I suspect the text might be talking about some kind of software / IT tool.

    Over the last 14 years I taught myself how to develop software so that I could implement a tech idea that I’d had. So, I have been the lay-person battling through a minefield of IT jargon trying to cobble together my invention.

    At first I found a lot of the jargon to be offputting. But, over time, I have come to realise that some words are really handy to distinguish between subtle aspects of a piece of software.

    The trouble is – these words are borrowed from pre-existing language where their meanings are more loose. Hence confusion can arise.

    An example might be the word ‘robust’ to describe software. In his book Code Complete (2nd Edition), Steve McConnel expains the term during his discussion on software quality – ‘correctness’ verses ‘robustness’ :

    >> Strictly speaking, software that is designed to be ‘correct’ will never return an inaccurate result; returning no result is better than returning an inaccurate result – think ‘Hospital X-Ray machine’. Whereas software that is designed to be ‘robust’ will always try to do something that will allow the software to keep operating, even if that leads to results that are inaccurate sometimes – think ‘video game’.

    Those two words describe qualities that are at opposite ends of a scale. (I pity the programmer who is told by his boss to build a ‘robust’ AND ‘correct’ piece of software).

    It seems that a marketing person has overheard the programmers using the word ‘robust’ in the context of software and then re-used those same words in the context of their marketing. Then, the next marketeer has copied that blurb for a rival product and propogated the hot air…and so on.

    So, if I drop my cynicism for a moment, I might say that the author of the original text’s major crime was to cram all the benefits of their product into too small a space.

    In the interest of full disclosure: I have absolutely no idea who wrote the original text and it might be nothing to do with software after all. ;0)

  19. […] I have just read a brilliant, practical, guide to cutting the crap out of your promotional writing, sales emails and advertising copy. […]

  20. You asked us readers : “If you can tell us what a meaningless warning might be, do say in the comments”.

    So here is my take on it:

    A meaningful warning might look like this:

    “The printer cartridge C is running out of ink. It will probably need replacing soon.”

    A slightly less meaningful warning might look like this:
    “One of the manycartridges is running out. It will probably need replacing soon. Have fun finding it.”

    And a meaningless warning might look like:

    [flashing red light]

    ——-

  21. […] post on Clare Lynch’s blog – Good Copy, Bad Copy the other day.  It’s called ‘Business writers, here’s why you really need to master the parts of speech’. Here’s a chunk of goobledook followed by Clare’s […]

  22. […] fluff up your copy. Stick to concrete details — nouns and verbs, what your product contains and what it actually does — and cut the meaningless […]

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