Lecture 3: Nouns and Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs

The toughness and colour of verbs and nouns

Adjectives and adverbs are useful, but they are not what makes literature great, and certainly not what makes business writing persuasive. Adjectives and adverbs express the opinions of the writer without providing evidence. They tell us that something is tasty, the best, luxurious, comfortable, entertaining, funny, or moving. But they do not show us evidence to back up those claims.

“It is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and colour,” according to The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White, a book that most U.S. college students of my generation had to read as part of our curriculum. The book can be found on the desks of editors and writers across the English-speaking world.

“With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across,” Stephen King says in his book On Writing. King should know: Carrie, The Shining, and more than 80 other of his books have sold more than 350 million copies.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that he learned “to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.”

None of these writers advocates boycotting adjectives and adverbs. Strunk and White use the adjective “good.” King uses the adjective “afraid” and adverbs “usually” and “clearly.” Hemingway writes the adjective “certain” twice. Problems arise when writers use adjectives and adverbs to substitute for nouns and verbs that provide tangible evidence.

Use detail to engage and convince readers

Another writing mantra is, “Do not to bore your reader.” It sounds obvious. But as with “show, don’t tell,” it is hard to do. People often interpret the advice to mean they should not bog down readers with excessive detail. As a result, they write in generalised terms, using adjectives, adverbs, concept nouns, and weak verbs, and include little detail.

However, good writing is in the detail. You must not overwhelm readers with endless detail. But you must provide enough to help readers understand what something looks, feels, sounds, tastes, or smells like. Words like “nice,” “interesting,” and “pleasant” give the writer’s verdict on a subject. But rarely are we convinced without more tangible evidence. Detail relies on the work of nouns and verbs.

Take a look at any classic of fiction and you will find it is full of nouns and verbs that makes the reader feel almost as if they were present at the scene of the action, watching the characters play out the narrative. Adjectives and adverbs help, but it is the nouns and verbs that do the heavy work. Here are the opening paragraphs of Wolf Hall, the first novel in Hilary Mantel’s sprawling trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, who became the most powerful of Henry VIII courtiers.

“ ‘So now get up.’

“Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him up. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.”

Mantel won the Man Booker Prize twice, for each of her first two novels of the trilogy. The clarity and power of her prose rests on nouns and action verbs. It is the detail of character and action that convinces us the story is plausible within the bounds of the imaginary world the author creates.

The world’s best tomato sauce

Business writing is factual—at least, it should be, even in this age of “alternative facts.” Just like fiction, business communication succeeds by giving the reader a tangible sense of what the writer wants their audience to buy or buy into. To be convincing, business writing must not simply make claims, but rather, back up its premise or proposition with evidence including anecdotes, statistics, numbers, survey results, observations, testimonials, etc.

“Our tomato sauce is the best you can buy,” for example, is a big claim that any tomato-sauce producer can make. On its own, the statement is not convincing. But if we mention that our sauce is manufactured in the heart of a tomato-growing region from organically grown tomatoes picked when perfectly ripe, that the recipe is a family secret handed down for generations, and that our product comes out on top in more blind tastings than any other brand, our audience is more likely to believe us.

G4S’s Olympics failure: Why did its account not impress?

Read the extract from the G4S 2012 annual report below and consider the use of adjectives and adverbs. The following background information will help you understand the context of the extract. In March 2011, G4S, which purports to be the world’s biggest provider of security personnel, signed a contract to provide training and management for a 10,000-strong security force, including 2,000 of its own staff. In December of that year, as the UK government decided to increase security for the Olympics, G4S committed to increase the provision of its own staff to 10,400. In July 2012, weeks before the start of the sports event, the company said it could not meet its commitment. G4S had to pay £88 million to compensate for breaching the contract. It had expected to make a £10 million profit on the deal. The comments of G4S’s chairman, below, aimed to satisfy the many critics that all was well at the company.

No consideration of the company’s performance in 2012 can ignore the Olympics contract. It made headlines and brought us to the public’s attention, especially in the UK, and for all the wrong reasons. With help from PwC, the board conducted a thorough review of the circumstances surrounding the group’s performance on delivering the Olympics contract to ensure that the reasons for the problems were properly understood and so that any necessary remedial actions could be identified and taken. It was very important to me as the new chairman, and to the whole board, that we took whatever steps were necessary to learn these lessons, no matter how painful this process might be. We are satisfied that there was no systemic problem in the way that the group operated its business and that it was the unique nature of the Olympics contract and the compressed timeframe in which it had to be delivered which were at the heart of the group’s failure to deliver all that it should have done on this occasion. Nevertheless, we have introduced stronger mechanisms for reviewing risks in general and contract risk.”

Looking closely at the comments, one feels the chairman is glossing over rather than addressing the issues. What did the “thorough” investigation entail? “Properly understood” is a redundant expression: If you understand something, you must understand it “properly;” or else you have not understood. In what way was the Olympic contract “unique”? How did the timeframe become “compressed?” Rather than telling us there was no “systemic” issue, the chairman would have served the company and investors better by explaining the system and showing how and why it failed in the Olympics contract. And exactly what are these “stronger” mechanisms to prevent a similar fiasco?

The chairman has told us how he sees things. His aim is to exonerate managers of any blame. But he has not shown how he came to that conclusion, or why we should trust his findings. Just after G4S announced its withdrawal from the contract, its share price dropped 9 percent in London trading. Investment bank UBS downgraded its rating of G4S. The company has suffered several scandals since then. But probably none is more memorable than the Olympics. Failure to own up to what went wrong reduced investors’ confidence in management. Words did not cause the disaster. But choosing the right words would have helped make amends.

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