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Is That a Noun or a Verb? I’m Confused


The main reason why sentences are confusing is that they are too long. Shorten them and your readers will thank you. But another leading reason for confusing sentences: uncertainty about what part of speech a word is: noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and so on.

Why should I care about parts of , if I’m not a teacher of English grammar? Because, subconsciously, we all do what our English teachers taught us: we diagram sentences. The more complex the sentence, the longer it is, the more likely we are to search for subjects and predicates, just to make sense of the sentence. Who is doing what to whom?

The problem comes when a word can be used as either noun or verb or something else, and we’re not sure at first glance which it is. The reason why that’s a problem is that many sentences don’t get more than a first glance. When we scan, browse, or speed-read, we want to grasp the gist of the sentence right away. We don’t want to have to read it more than once.

Here are examples of the kind of confusing sentences I’m talking about:

The fear that the treasure won’t be his troubles him throughout the film.

When many readers see the phrase “his troubles,” their minds will try to turn it into either the subject or the object of the sentence, which it isn’t. If they see the phrase “his troubles him,” they will really get confused. Both phrases misinterpret the sentence.

Other ways to say it: Throughout the film, he fears that the treasure won’t be his. Throughout the film, he is troubled by fears that the treasure won’t be his.

Because of labor strikes the trains scheduled this afternoon will be delayed.

If you see “labor strikes the trains,” you’ll interpret the sentence as an account of union unrest and riots. If you see “the trains scheduled,” you’ll wonder who is in charge now: violent labor unions or sinister trains with a mind of their own.

Other ways to say it: Because of labor strikes, the trains that were scheduled this afternoon will be delayed. Labor strikes will delay this afternoon’s trains.

To defuse this type of confusing sentence, break the connection between the words that shouldn’t be connected. In the second example, a comma may be all you need to add. In the first example, we need to keep “his” and “troubles” apart.

Some words will always be troublesome. No matter where you put it in the sentence, a word such as “strikes” can be a source of confusion for hasty readers, since it can be both noun and verb. Of course, the shorter the sentence, the quicker your readers can untangle it.

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