Compound Verbs: Sapping Energy from the Action


Give your sentences precise and focused action.

What is a compound verb?

A compound verb is a verb phrase with more than one word. If you really want to get grammar-nerdy about it, you can check out the Wikipedia entry on compound verbs to learn about the different classifications and labels for this phenomenon.

But my goal here is to create useful tools to improve your writing, and all you need to know is that a compound verb is a verb composed of more than one word.

Brian is walking.
The dog was barking.
The rain has stopped.

Though there is nothing grammatically wrong with compound verbs, they often indicate wasteful construction. You could rewrite all of these:
Brian walks.
The dog barked.
The rain stopped.

Eliminate compound verbs for more effective sentences

These are particularly unnecessary when the primary (main) verb already indicates timing.

Wages are starting to increase.

“Starting” indicates the beginning of something, just as “increase” means to become larger. Both verbs tell the reader that something is in process, but not completed. In this case, you don’t need both verbs.

I would rewrite this as:
Wages are increasing.

This little revision helps us see the path to a more meaningful one. This compound verb (“are increasing”) is really just a description of “wages.” So, you can put “increasing” before “wages” to write a more substantive sentence like:
Increasing wages are giving consumers more buying power. 

Because you’re an observant reader, you’ll notice that this fix still has a compound verb. However, here, we need the compound verb to indicate that something is in the process of happening; it’s in motion. This new sentence only has one verb phrase, and our sentence also says a whole lot more.

Here’s another example:
The market is beginning to show signs of improvement.

Count the verbs in this sentence. There are three, if you see that “improvement” is a nominalization that hides the verb “improve.”

Once again, “beginning” indicates the start of something, just as “improvement” indicates that something is in the process of becoming better. Just as in the previous sentence, verbs are duplicating each other.

When we chop all of the waste out of this sentence, we are left with:
The market is improving.

We don’t need “beginning to” because “improving” already indicates a process in motion.

Here’s another example from a client’s report:
We are always closely monitoring private market transactions, which we believe are important indicators of business value.

By targeting the compound verb (“are…monitoring”) and the nominalization (“indicators”), I was able to suggest the following revision:
We always closely monitor private market transactions, which we believe strongly indicate market value.

Compound verbs that can’t be eliminated

Some compound verbs are actually two-word verb phrases, like “air condition” or “baby sit.” Copyeditors have lots of discussions about whether and when these verbs should be hyphenated. You can Google yourself into a rabbit hole on such issues if you wish.

My advice to business writers, though, is not to hyphenate these compound verbs–unless leaving out the hyphen would cause confusion. Readers can usually understand these verbs just fine without it, and hyphens can be disruptive. You want readers to focus on your message, not your typography.

Then there are phrasal verbs, which are multi-word verbs that contain prepositions, like “carry on,” “call off,” “get along.” Just remember that the preposition is part of the verb phrase here, not a standalone preposition.

Keep sentences moving!

Verbs matter more than any other part of speech. You want sentences that are strong, specific, and dynamic, and you accomplish this with verbs.

Keep verb phrases succinct by eliminating unnecessary compound verbs. You can do this by:

  1. Eliminating the “helping verb” (e.g., “is,” “are,” “has”)
  2. Looking for duplicate verbs in the same sentence (“starting to,” “beginning to”)
  3. Turning a nominalization into your primary verb

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