Turning verbs into nouns into verbs and vice versa has been going on since cavemen learned to grunt. Nothing wrong with that in principle.

But what I call ‘verb nounification’  – replacing verbs with nouns without good reason – is the cause of much flabby writing. How often have I read “to achieve the commercialisation of” when what the writer really meant was “to commercialise”?

A good (or bad?) example in the FT recently: “Climate change has the potential to have catastrophic effects on the economy and the planet. But it will not affect Exxon’s business model.”

This would have been far better as:  “Climate change could devastate the economy and the planet. But it will not affect Exxon’s business model.”

Why? Because it’s shorter, clearer and easier to take in. And that’s because active verbs (“could devastate”) replace a windy combination (“has the potential to have catastrophic effects on”). In this phrase, a weak verb (“have”) and neutral noun (“effects”) are buttressed with a faintly hysterical sounding adjective (“catastrophic”) in an attempt to give it some punch. Far better to pick a verb that does the job all by itself (“devastate”), shaving 23 words down to 17. Result.

“Has the potential to” is in any case a weaselly phrase capable of meaning just about anything and so best avoided.

 

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