How needless verbs weaken your meaning

Auxiliary verbs, we were taught in grade school, can clarify your writing, but is that always true? Let’s consider ways that they muddy the linguistic waters.

“Helper” verbs can hinder your writing.

In grammar school (appropriately enough), we learned about auxiliary verbs, which were offered as “helper” verbs.

Those include verb forms that change the tense:

  • Past tense: I did practice the sousaphone.
  • Future: I will practice the sousaphone.
  • Present progressive: I am practicing the sousaphone.
  • Past perfect: I have practiced the sousaphone.
  • Future convoluted: Once I am done practicing the sousaphone, I will have practiced the sousaphone.

Many writers use ancillary verbs to accompany main verbs, much as one might accompany the harp with a sousaphone, and with similar effect: muddying the clarity of the primary focus.

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Consider these constructions:

  • They were able to finish the project.
  • The CEO took the opportunity to delegate the project to her minions.
  • The mayor decided to appoint his dimwitted son-in-law.
  • Within months they began posting videos.

In the first, “They were able to finish the project,” beyond the needless extra keystrokes, clarity suffers.

Ability doesn’t necessitate execution, after all.

Consider this:

I am able to peel and eat a banana.

That will never happen, I assure you. I abhor bananas; I find them utterly repugnant.

Better would be, “They finished the project.” They could not have finished it without the ability to do so. It’s also concise, strong and certain.

Let’s look at the other examples:

The CEO took the opportunity to delegate the project to her minions.

The CEO delegated the project to her minions.

Again, implicit in the delegation is the opportunity.

The mayor decided to appoint his dimwitted son-in-law.

The mayor appointed his dimwitted son-in-law.

The decision might have been made grudgingly, the result of wheedling or cajoling by the mayor’s daughter. Even under duress, a decision is a decision.

Beyond that, the decision does not necessitate the action itself. Philomena might decide to go to sleep early on a given night, but distractions and disruptions can undermine our best-laid plans, and all that. Next thing you know, and it’s 2:30 a.m. and Philomena is wide awake.

The decision, no matter how committed she might be to it, doesn’t make Philomena any better rested when the alarm goes off at 6:15.

Last one:

Within months they began posting videos.

Within months they posted videos.

Here, the action is not in doubt, but again, the beginning of the process is understood through the doing of it. It’s just one extra word, granted, but they do add up.


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