Avoid Redundant Verbs

Picture of Scissors to Represent ConcisenessThe Issue

Every day I come across sentences in which authors accidentally repeat the same meaning. Redundancy can take many forms, but for this post we’ll focus on the use of two redundant verbs.

This type of redundancy often occurs when we try to add a second verb for emphasis or effect. Sometimes this is helpful or necessary, but most of the time one verb suffices.

Why This Is Important

If you are writing fiction or an article for a popular magazine, perhaps the redundancy won’t matter so much. But in academic writing, preciseness and conciseness are highly valued. Printing costs aside, the more important issues are that academic writing should be clear and objective so that methodology, findings, and conclusions can be, understood, reproduced, and evaluated. Remember that your paper could end up in a policy debate at some point, or it could influence how the next author studies the issue. Every word is important in academic writing.

Examples

Most of the time, it is easy to see the redundancy of two verbs.  That is, if I say that “Jane was hitting and banging the nail with the hammer,” we can see that I can just use one verb.  In this case, we can pick whichever verb gives the desired emphasis (“hitting” for a more normal connotation and “banging” for a more forceful connotation).

However, the issue gets tricky when the second verb seems to be different, but when you look closely at the definition, the second verb repeats something that was already in the definition of the first verb. Here is an example that I encountered today, changed of course to protect the author’s identity:

“Sam’s jealousy festered and grew for years.”

At first it might not seem like the verbs repeat one another. But let’s take a look at Merriam-Webster to check. Definition 3a of the verb fester in M-W Collegiate is

“to cause increasing poisoning, irritation, or bitterness” (emphasis added).

So, the definition of fester already includes the idea that a negative feeling is increasing or intensifying, which means that the verb grew, which also connotes an increase, is redundant with the verb festered. So an improvement on our example sentence would be

“Sam’s jealousy festered and grew for years.”

How to Recognize the Issue in Your Own Writing

So how do we stop ourselves from using unnecessary wordiness in this way? Whenever you use two or more verbs in succession, alarm bells should go off in your head. Take a moment to evaluate whether the verbs are really distinct. Check the dictionary (preferably Merriam-Webster if you are writing in U.S. English and Oxford in British English). If one of the verbs repeats part of the other verb, you can probably just use one verb. In that case, pick the verb that most precisely gives your meaning.

Even if the verbs are distinct, as shown in the first example above (hitting and banging), see if you can just use one verb that precisely gives your meaning–this is usually possible. It might not seem like a big deal, but when this issue repeats over and over in a manuscript, it wears the reader down. The extra words are also distracting and can take away from the effect more than they contribute to it.

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Rocky Citro

Hi, my name is Rocky, and I am a technical academic editor with over a decade experience editing for professors and graduate students in prestigious universities. I have also taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level and have several years' TEFL teaching experience.