Again, none of this is original.
I had thoughts about this subject for a future missive but an article I read recently in an online newspaper accelerated my thinking. I was struck by the verb used in a quotation as a shining example of strong verb usage, albeit in a spectacularly wrongheaded fashion.
Rudy Giuliani, in an interview with Sean Hannity about the Stormy Daniels affair and payments made to her lawyer by Michael Cohen spouted the money “was funneled through the law firm [i.e. Michael Cohen’s] and the President repaid it.”
What a great verb – “funneled”. Perhaps not the most appropriate time or context to use it – but still a strong verb.
Writers have long exhorted us to use strong verbs. Two of my favorite commentators on legal writing, Bryan A. Garner and William Bernhardt, tell us, respectively, “use strong, precise verbs” and “Let your Action Verbs Act!”.
Both stylists urge us to minimize or avoid “to-be” verbs, which include: is; are; was; were; am; become; and became. Easier said than done.
I must confess that although I am long familiar with this advice I have not followed it and have not fully grasped its importance. Try to write a paragraph without using any “to-be” verbs (virtually impossible) or limit their use (quite difficult). We tend to the easy and “to-be” verbs are easy.
Our excessive use of “to-be” verbs exemplifies how our writing can lack muscle, and hence, clarity and precision. Most of us read visually. An example – “the car sped around the corner” vs. “the car careened around the corner”. Which is more descriptive? Verbs are action words. Does it not make sense to select a word that mentally illustrates the action in a vivid and precise way?
Bryan A. Garner instructs us to turn “-ion words into verbs when we can”. Thus application becomes apply; determination becomes determine; modification becomes modify; imposition becomes impose; violation becomes violate; and so on.
William Bernhardt similarly admonishes us to avoid “the tendency toward nominalizations, that is, good verbs converted to nouns while a much weaker verb is substitutes, making a wordier and less powerful sentence.” [No, this is not a typo.]
Circling back to Mr. Giuliani: do you view the verb “funnel” in a negative light? Quoting an on-line definition, it means: “to send (something such as money) to someone or something in usually an indirect or secret way.” In my mind, this strong verb conjures up images of illicit payments, money laundering and corruption. When one adds that the person doing the funneling is the President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani’s use of this verb is, at best, ill-advised.
This practice is not without its critics. When taken too far, it becomes “verbing”.