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  • Margaret Phillips

The Power of Verbs

People, places, and things are nouns. Verbs are where all the action is. When we combine nouns and verbs in our writing, we convey to our audience "who is doing what."

Sounds simple, but is it?

In written English, we often disguise verbs as nouns.

When we turn a verb into a noun, we create distance: an action becomes a thing.

We also conceal who is doing the action.

A grammar of choice

I learned, as a student of linguistics, that our language system involves choice.

When we write, we're interpreting events in our world; we're mapping a world of relationships and actions for our readers. We not only choose specific words, but we also choose specific grammatical patterns as we tell our stories. There are always different ways to interpret and tell a story.

Let's look at a simple example of how we can choose between different grammatical patterns to recount the same event.

Think of a word like examination. It's an abstract noun derived from the verb examine.

  • The examination of records showed no evidence of wrongdoing.

In this first sentence, we don't know who was responsible for examining the records.

We could, instead, choose the verb "examine." Writing a verb as a verb leads to a different grammatical pattern.

  • The board members examined the records and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

In this second sentence, we employ a grammatical pattern that tells us "who was doing what." A clear image springs to mind for our readers when we write with concrete nouns and action verbs.

If the second sentence is so much easier to understand, why do we turn so many verbs into nouns when we write?

Nouns allow us to pack lots of disguised verbs into a written sentence. It means we can convey a lot of information in fewer words. On the downside, we lose sight of the relationships between actors and their actions.

A grammar of animacy

I was recently reminded of the difference between nouns and verbs as I read Braiding Sweetgrass, a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a botanist and a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. An Indigenous woman and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she is also a poet.

In her chapter Learning the Grammar of Animacy, she tells of learning her Indigenous language and the difference between English and Potawatomi. Potawatomi is part of the Algonquian family of languages spoken by Indigenous people in the areas around the Great Lakes in what is now known as southern Ontario and the northern US states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, pg. 53

How does an Indigenous language based predominantly on verbs differ from English?

Kimmerer explains that in Potawatomi, non-human beings — plants, animals, rocks, hills, trees, water — are not nouns but verbs. So a rock is to be a rock, a bay is to be a bay, and

a tree is to be a tree.

Kimmerer describes this interpretive shift to verbs as a grammar of animacy.

When Indigenous people use verbs to interpret the natural world, non-human beings are not an "it." Rather, understood as verbs, they have life — to be. They are animate beings with spirit and agency, with teachings to offer humans.

Language as worldview

When I studied linguistics, I learned that the grammar of any language constitutes relationships.

Our relationships are realized in our grammar: we speak and write our relationships into being every day through our grammar.

So our grammar — our patterned ways of interpreting our relationships and our world — is our worldview.

As Kimmerer's writings reveal, the grammar of animacy is an Indigenous worldview.

The web of relationships and reciprocity that Indigenous Peoples have with the natural world is built into their grammar of verbs.

A grammar of animacy reminds us of how important Indigenous languages are. Indigenous Peoples have much to teach us about how to live in reciprocity with the natural world — how to give back and learn from the natural world rather than always take.

A grammar of relationships

What can we learn from the stark differences between languages and the grammar of nouns and verbs?

When writing and editing in English, we can be alert to the overuse of nouns. We can be aware that verbs are dynamic. They bring energy and life to a text. They spell out relationships that help an audience understand our message.

If something is hard to understand, I look for the main ideas — I review nouns and verbs. Often the problem is too many nouns and not enough verbs.

So while nouns are necessary, we can't forget that verbs establish relationships between nouns. They give our writing power and clarity.


Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, Min: Milkweed Editions.

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