Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Directing Action with Light Verbs

Recently a reader of the Copyediting newsletter (which I edit) asked me about the phrase take a decision. Shouldn't it be make a decision? In researching the answer, I learned that make and take were examples of "light verbs." It's a concept that few besides linguists are concerned with, if my research is accurate, but one that if writers were more aware of could have a profound effect on their writing.

Lightening the Load

A light verb refers to a light use of a verb. That is, a light verb adds little meaning to the action of the sentence. Made is a light verb in the following first sentence; there's really no difference in meaning between the first and second sentences:

After reviewing his company's declining sales, the CEO made the decision to lay off workers.

After reviewing his company's declining sales, the CEO decided to lay off workers.

Light verbs put the main action at arm's length, in a noun farther along in the sentence. In one sense this softens the action. Consider that the CEO made the decision to lay off workers doesn't sound quite as horrible as the CEO decided to lay off workers.

The most common light verbs and some of the nouns they frequently pair with include:

Light Verb

Pairs with

Example

give

advice, cough, description, gasp, kiss, laugh, sigh

Sally gave the police a description of the man who mugged her.

make

appeal, choice, copy, dash, decision, leap, offer, search

Tom made a copy of his notes for the final exam.

have

bath, pity, rest, shave, sip, swim; chat, meeting, quarrel

Lisa had a chat with her roommate about the dishes in the sink.

take

bath, pity, rest, shave, sip, swim; dive, leap, decision

Take pity on the poor souls.

do

cleaning, dive, knitting, report, sprint, thinking, work

After doing all the cleaning, Robert finally did his report on Samuel Clemens.

Source: Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002

A few notes on the table:

  • The listed nouns are just a sampling of those that can pair with light verbs.
  • Have and take often overlap in the nouns they can pair with (e.g., bath, drink, pity), but not all nouns can take both (e.g., chat pairs only with have; leap pairs only with take).
  • As my Copyediting reader learned, make and take can both be paired with decision.
  • The do here is not the same as emphatic do (e.g., I do understand!).

Other light verbs you might find include offer, pay, put, and raise. These verbs don't pair with as many nouns.

The Power of the Light

If light verbs downplay the main action of a sentence, why would you use them? Generally, they allow the action to be described more precisely:

Sandra gasped when she saw the wedding gown.

Sandra gave a small gasp when she saw the wedding gown.

Light verbs can also allow the action to be quantified:

Todd coughed to get our attention.

Todd gave a cough to get our attention.

In both situations, the action is more narrowly defined, clarifying the meaning.

Losing the Light

Yet light verbs can also obscure meaning. For example, in Frank had a shave yesterday, did Frank shave himself or did someone else shave him? Context can sometimes clear up possible confusion. If not, though, choose the more direct option. Doing so has the advantage of highlighting the action, making it more immediate and direct: Frank shaved yesterday.

I've said it a few times now: light verbs can make the action less direct, robbing the sentence of some of its punch. As my reader noted, it seems as though using take a decision or make a decision distances the decision maker from the responsibility of the decision.

Many times a sentence with a light verb can be rewritten with a more active verb, without losing clarity or precision:

Sandra gasped slightly when she saw the wedding gown.

Todd coughed once to get our attention.

Embrace the Light… or Not

Light verbs have their place. They allow the writer to more accurately describe the action, quantify the action, or soften it. Some light verbs are interchangeable, as with make/take a decision.

However, that softened action may not be desirable in your sentence. To make your writing more powerful, replace some light verbs with more direct verbs.

After all, why make a decision when you can decide?


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
i think we do this quite often without being conscious of the fact. now that u have explained how i am doing it or why i am doing it, it is rather clear to me. tks erin.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You're welcome, Chandru!
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Jean-Luc (San Jose, CA)
Using weak verbs is encouraging nominalization - a sometimes undesirable trait of the scientific writing style.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 11:01 AM
Comment by: jenna R. (jersey city, NJ)
Thanks for this, Erin. Quite interesting. A note about "take a decision" or "take a meeting" - it seems to me that the wide use o "take" in these examples is fairly recent in time, perhaps 15 years? To me it conveyed not so much distancing as pomposity and self-importance in the speakers and always gave me a chuckle.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jean-Luc, yes, weak verbs lead to nominalizations. Sometimes they're desirable, sometimes not.

Jenna, "take a decision" is a British turn of phrase, while "make a decision" is American. Both phrases have been around for a while and became increasingly popular in the 20th century. At this point "make a decision" is more popular, even in Britain.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Ray S.
"Take a decision" is British usage, I believe. In the early 1990s, I began to hear it in Washington DC, chiefly among those who had lived in Britain and liked to associate themselves with the British educated classes. It quickly spread through the policy making elites (and elite wannabes), particularly at the State Department.
Ray Squitieri
Chevy Chase, MD
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 8:45 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Very nice clarification of usage and effect. Thanks.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 9:36 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Nice overview of light verbs, especially the less common ones, which I hadn't though about. I talked about light verbs a little in this script for Grammar Girl on the verb "do" (in both heavy and light incarnations): http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-verb-“do”-is-weirder-than-you-think
Thursday October 24th 2013, 5:16 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Neal! Your URL came through mangled, but for those who are interested (and you should be, it's a good episode), here it is again: http://bit.ly/1a2fSTL.
Friday November 8th 2013, 3:59 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Erin, I like the main tenor of this article, but I feel you don't always follow through with explanations.

For example

"Light verbs can also allow the action to be quantified:

Todd coughed to get our attention.

Todd gave a cough to get our attention."


I'm being deliberately provocative here:
Would anyone seriously imagine from those two statements that "Todd" would need to go off into a "paroxysm" of multiple (countable, i.e. quantifiable) coughs to get our attention? The first example does not imply any greater number of countable coughs than the second. What it does imply is that Todd (or the narrator) is a more resolute, or even fact-stating, mundane character, while the second statement expresses a more hesitant approach on the part of the cougher (Todd) or a more empathetic approach on the part of the observer (narrator). This is not a question of strict quantifiability. It IS a question of reducing an uncountable into a countable entity to reduce the force of that action and distance oneself from it to lighten the impact, either for the actor or for the audience.

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