English is constantly undergoing change and expansion. New words are coined daily, and a few words fade into obscurity every year. Other words surf the waves of popular culture: Do you think anyone used the word “unfriend” a decade ago?
Regrettably, popularity isn’t the same thing as clarity. It’s not essential that you always use the best word when writing content for your professional website. English abounds with so many near-synonyms, each with a special shade of meaning, that no “best” word exists for most circumstances. Rather, each word you choose will subtly influence the overall ideas you express.
While pursuing the “best word” is a fool’s game, effective communication requires that you avoid vague but trendy word choices. And this is especially true for the verbs you use in your writing.
The Unique Role of Verbs
The verb is the dynamo of the sentence. It describes a state of being or propels the action. Selecting the right verb brings clarity and impact to a sentence, which is one reason why it’s sad to find so many writers fall back on forms of “to be”—is, were, has been—as their mainstay verb.
Verbs are broadly classified as transitive or intransitive; we’re going to focus on the first category today. Transitive verbs describe an action done to, for, with, or on behalf of something (or someone); thus, a sentence with a transitive verb needs other words to express a complete thought. Consider, for instance, the transitive verb “throw.” The sentence He throws isn’t satisfying because it doesn’t disclose what was thrown (called the direct object). Depending on the noun phrase used to fill out the thought, we could find the sentence heading off in surprising directions:
- He threw the boxing match.
- He threw a tea party for his daughter’s favorite stuffed animals.
- He threw the cannonball almost eleven feet.
People react strongly when transitive verbs aren’t used correctly. One of my mentors—a sterling fellow in all other regards—had a habit of thanking people by saying, “Appreciate!” But, of course, the word is a transitive verb that demands a direct object: “I appreciate your help,” for instance. I wasn’t the only person to wince when receiving a cheery, “Appreciate!”
Half a Dozen Outlaws: View These Verbs With Suspicion
It may strike you as odd that verbs are ever considered controversial. But every so often, a verb becomes a business-school buzzword and later escapes into popular usage. It starts to show up in website postings, often to be met with scorn or incomprehension by casual readers.
We’ll look at six transitive verbs that have garnered a reputation for being trendy, trite, or misused b-school jargon. They should not be common parts of your content writing vocabulary. Does that mean you’re forbidden to use them? No. But you should be aware of the bad reputation each of these words drags along with it, and use the verb only after judicious consideration.
- Grow. There’s nothing wrong with using “grow” as an intransitive verb (Thyme grows sparsely in Dawn’s herb garden) or as a transitive verb when dealing with organic life (Boyd’s green thumb helped him grow prize-winning huckleberries). Grow becomes controversial when it’s used in a transitive, non-organic sense (Dr. Adams hoped her new website would help grow her business). Many—but not all—language critics dismiss this use of “grow” as stale marketing jargon. Synonyms such as build, develop, expand, or extend are often preferable.
- Shop. I prefer not to see “shop” used as a transitive verb. One does not “shop Walmart” or “shop shoe stores,” but rather “shop at Walmart” or “shop for shoes.” What about the commonly accepted phrase “shop online,” though? Well, in that phrase the word “online” is serving as an adverb rather than as the direct object of a transitive verb. Some commercial websites will ask customers to “shop our online store,” but that usage is inelegant at best.
- Graduate. A few decades ago, the correct usage was in the passive voice: “Gregory was graduated by Harvard in 1903.” By the middle of the last century, today’s standard formulation had emerged, where the verb is intransitive and often precedes a prepositional phrase that completes the meaning: “Melissa graduates from high school next spring.” Avoid using the word as a transitive verb with a direct object: “Betty and Barry, the Shaheen twins, graduated dental school in 2013.”
- Transition. Most words ending in -ion are nouns. A few of them—“fashion” and “function” come to mind—evolve into verbs, too. But “transition” isn’t on the list of verbs, even though some people use it as such. If you’re tempted to write something like “We can help you transition your documents to another server”—well, just don’t. Use move, change, or another simple verb.
- Orientate. This verb is sometimes considered standard British English, but until recently, it was rarely used in the United States. It became trendy business-school jargon due to a process called back-formation: People who knew the noun “orientation” assumed there was a related verb, orientate, and began to use the verb in everyday speech. In fact, the preferred verb is orient. Avoid using orientate and—goodness gracious!—its cousin verb, disorientate.
- Diagnosis. The sentence “Do not attempt to diagnosis yourself” recently crossed my editor’s desk. It went no further. This is another instance of a noun being dressed up as a verb. We have a perfectly useful verb, diagnose, already in service.
What do you think? Do some particular verbs (or other words, for that matter) show up online in usage you consider vulgar, ugly, or nonstandard? Tell us what you think in our comments section. Only by recognizing poor diction whenever it appears can we strive for excellence in online prose writing.