Why are copywriters so keen to dumb down verbs?September 5th, 2013 11 Comments
I’m as pro-clarity as the next écrivain. But I think the current attack on verbs takes things a little too far.
Some verbs under attack
In this article, for instance, Laura Hale Brockway says we should replace all the verbs in the left column with those on the right:
I like Laura’s style, and agree with her intent. But I don’t agree with all of these suggestions. There’s a time and a place for some of them.
Verbs I think are OK…
Here’s a few from the list above that I think are fine, in their place. Along with an example of where I’ve used each in the past.
“accompany” vs “go with”
“Go with” doesn’t always say the same thing. And sometimes it sounds a bit flat. I used “accompany” in some real estate web copy here: “Our property managers accompany each and every prospective tenant…” Now let’s try that with “go with”: “Our property managers go with each and every prospective tenant…” Not quite the same thing. “Accompany” implies the property manager will stay by the tenant’s side during the inspection. “Go with” suggests they’ll go to the property with them, but it doesn’t imply they’ll stick to them like glue.
“ballpark” vs “estimate”
May be splitting hairs, but “ballpark” allows for more movement than “estimate”. It’s an estimate estimate. Best way to illustrate the difference is to use the noun variant: “Are we in the same ballpark?” If I ballpark a job at $10k, it’s kinda like saying it could be $8k or $12k. If I estimate it at $10k, it’s more like saying it could be $9.5k or $10.5k. But that could just be me…?
“consolidate” vs “join”
I could join two pieces of string by tying a knot. But weaving would consolidate them. To me, “consolidate” implies a much closer, more strategic joining. Here’s an example: “Consolidate your systems – Trade your legacy systems in for a single consolidated solution.” If I said “Join your systems”, it would sound like they were just tacked together.
“implement” vs “carry out” or “start”
“Carry out” and “start” don’t always mean the same thing. Here’s an example from some web copy I wrote for a cloud technologies client: “All the protection you know you need, but never had the time or resources to implement.” If we break that down a little, I’d be comfortable saying, “implement that protection”, but not “carry out that protection”. Implement has a broader meaning; it can apply to a solution, not just a series of steps. And “start” doesn’t even come close: “…never had the time or resources to start”. What about finishing?!
“incentivize” vs “motivate”
“Motivate” doesn’t mean the same thing. You can motivate people without incentivizing them. e.g. With fear. Maybe not always as well, but that’s a whole nother story!… (That said, I don’t think I’ve ever actually used “incentivize” in client copy. I’ve definitely used it in conversation though. Usually when my wife tells me to do the washing up! ;-)
“leverage” vs “take advantage of”
How is “take advantage of” more succinct than “leverage”? Here’s an example where “take advantage of” wouldn’t have worked as well: “…leverage your knowledge of sales patterns from other states.” Let’s try it: “…take advantage of your knowledge of sales patterns from other states.” The double “of” is very grating. Plus it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. “Leverage” implies a strategic use of something to strengthen your approach. “Take advantage of” implies opportunism.
“modify” vs “change”
To me, “modify” says something about the changer’s intent and degree of control. Here’s an example for some brochure copy I wrote for the University of Western Sydney: “Gene scientists employ sophisticated tools and techniques to identify, control, and modify the genes of living organisms.” I reckon in this context, “change” would have seemed a little random or uncontrolled.
“optimize” vs “improve”
“Improve” doesn’t always mean the same thing as “optimize”. Search engine optimisation is a good example! ;-) And even when improvement is the ultimate goal, “optimize” implies refinement or squeezing the most out of something existing. “Improve” could mean “replace”. Here’s an example from some web copy I wrote for a share market software vendor: “Find out how to optimise your portfolio to get it into the ‘Gold Zone’.” If I’d said “improve”, the reader might have thought we were advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
“utilize” vs “use”
I wouldn’t argue for long about this one, but I think there’s a subtle difference between “use” and “utilise”. It’s kinda like the difference between “take advantage of” and “leverage”, or between “change” and “optimize”. “Utilise” implies some degree of calculated or intelligent use. It’s an extra layer of meaning. Take a look at this copy I wrote for a car dealer: “They utilise the industry’s most advanced formulas…” I know “use” would have made sense, too, but it just wouldn’t have meant quite as much.
I agree with the essence though…
Don’t get me wrong. I agree we should cull the crap from our writing. But I don’t think we should dumb it down.
What do you think?
Please comment below with your thoughts. I'm not so old a dog that I can't learn a few new tricks!