Bob Burger’s Writing Class—Verb Mutilation

Back in the early 1970s, The company I worked for brought in a local consultant and former newspaperman, Bob Burger, from Wayne, PA, to improve our writing.  His course was the best and most useful I have ever taken.  I still treasure his textbook, “How to Write So People Can Understand You,” published just for his course, and I still rely on it to improve my writing.  I was pleased to find used copies are available on Amazon.

His approach was simple and unique.  He set our goal to make our writing more efficient for the reader.  He had a list of 39 “agents of wordiness” that we were to apply to a sample of our own business writing.  If his way was shorter without changing either the meaning or emphasis (and we would be the judge), his way was the correct way.  Who could argue with such a simple, sensible rule?

Not only is the shortest way more efficient, he explained, it also eliminates a world of grammatical errors caused by unnecessary complexity, and mitigates the deadly sins of weakness, monotony, and ambiguity.  The result is clear and forceful writing .

In his experience, he told us, the average piece of  business writing is about 60% too long.  Our class easily exceeded the average.

Verb Mutilation.  The most abused agent of wordiness was “Verb Mutilation.”  He estimated 9 out of 10 sentences in business writing contain mutilated verbs.

We all know that action is expressed by verbs, yet, in our writing, we habitually express action with anything except a verb—a noun, adverb, adjective, or the part-verbs: gerunds and participles (the “-ing” words).  We are then stuck with a sentence with no verb, and we have to dip into a bag of bland utility verbs to make the sentence complete.  It sounds like a very complicated procedure, but we do it all the time without thinking.

An example:  I wrote something like, “We ran a distillation on the product to purify it.”  The action I had in mind was the very energetic boiling of the liquid and condensation of the vapors, but I chose to express this with a noun, “distillation,”  then had to throw in the utility verb, “ran” to make the sentence complete.  I should have said, “We distilled the product to purify it.”  Shorter?  Yes. More forceful?  Definitely.

[For advanced grammarians:  The sentence has two verb ideas, “distill” and “purify.”  I had to pick the primary verb idea, “distill” and subordinate the other as an infinitive.  The alternative subordination would be, “We purified the product by distillation.”  As author, it was my choice.]

Some mutilations are so common, finding their keywords almost always yields gold.

“Necessarily” is an adverb often used to express the action “need,” as in:

“Many people necessarily have to pay the high gasoline prices,” instead of  “Many need to pay the high gasoline prices.”   (“People” is also eliminated by Burger’s number two agent of wordiness, “Saying What Goes Without Saying.”)

“Able” is an adjective often used to express the verb idea “can,”  and we write,

“Are you able to fix my computer?” instead of  “Can you fix my computer?”

Even the common construction “Due to . . .” or “Because of . . .” usually hides a mutilated verb.  We write,

“Due to these unforeseen circumstances, we could not complete the project,” instead of  “These unforeseen circumstances prevented us from completing the project.”

Get his book for more examples.  The most efficient practice begins with the initial writing.  Keep the action you want to express firmly in mind, and go right for the verb that expresses it.  Correct the mutilations that slip through by editing.  You cannot expect to catch them all, but your writing will be vastly improved.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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