39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?

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Making a Decision

Making a Decision

Replacing a single verb with a longer paraphrase is a useful way to avoid unwanted words or add wanted ones

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WHY USE 3 WORDS INSTEAD OF 1?

I used to wonder about the appropriacy in English of sentences like this:

(a) The committee made a decision to invest.

Why, I asked, should anyone choose to say made a decision when it is so much more efficient to say decided? Why, more generally, has English developed the option of a longer way to say what verbs say (cf. reached a conclusion, gave a definition and made an agreement)? There must be a reason, my Linguistics training tells me, because there always is. After much thought, I still feel that the above sentence is better with the single word decided, but I have identified at least some occasions when the longer alternative might be useful, and I wish to share these insights here.

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EXPRESSIONS LIKE “make a decision”

Before discussing the value of expressions like make a decision, it is as well to analyse their linguistic nature. They comprise a verb (in this case make) followed by a noun (a decision). The noun, moreover, is spelt similarly to a verb meaning the same as the whole phrase: decision is similar to decide and agreement to agree (see 14. Action Outcomes for more on nouns like this). Finally, the choice of verb with this noun is quite restricted. Here, as with a large number of other nouns, it is MAKE (see 141. Ways of Using MAKE), but sometimes it must be HAVE (e.g. have a discussion – see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE), GIVE (give a definition), CARRY OUT (carry out a review) or FORM (form a belief).

The narrowness of verb choice means we can call each whole expression an example of a “collocation”, or word partnership. More about collocation in English can be read in the post 111. Words with their Own Preposition, and also on a worksheet downloadable from the Learning Materials page.

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USING EXPRESSIONS LIKE “make a decision” TO AVOID UNWANTED WORDS

The idea of “unwanted words” is often found in discussions of passive verbs in English. Passives are said to be a useful way to avoid mentioning the unwanted subject of their corresponding active form. Various reasons are given for words being unwanted, for example that they are too informal (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), obvious (e.g. the police arrested the culprit), unknown (e.g. someone broke the window), or a secret. The avoidance of such words is said to be one of the two main uses of passive verbs (see the technical article within these pages entitled Active/Passive Paraphrases and What they Mean for Teaching).

A problem with the passive, however, is that it is only able to remove unwanted words when they are the subject of a verb – not the object (for the difference between subjects and objects, see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices and 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Moreover, even verb subjects are sometimes not able to be removed by means of the passive. It is these limitations of passive verbs that expressions like make a decision can overcome.

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1. Avoiding Unwanted Objects

Perhaps the reason why little is said about avoiding unwanted objects is that objects are much less common than subjects: all verbs need a subject in ordinary statements; not all need an object. Yet objects can be just as unwanted as subjects. Here are some examples:

(a) The committee decided the matter after a 3-hour meeting.

(b) The interviewees informed me about the procedures they followed.

In (a), the object the matter is obvious, since its meaning can be understood from the verb alone (all decisions are about “matters”). Its presence is due purely to the need of the transitive verb decided to have an object. The situation is similar in (b), where there is also the problem that me is too informal a word for serious writing.

The beauty of expressions like make a decision is that they are syntactically identical to the combination of VERB + (unwanted) OBJECT, so that they can directly replace instances of it without disturbing the rest of the sentence: we just replace one VERB + OBJECT combination with another. The above two problem sentences can thus be improved like this:

(c) The committee made a decision after a 3-hour meeting.

(d) The interviewees gave information about the procedures they followed.

Many more examples of unwanted objects are in the post 8. Object-Dropping Errors. Below are some more examples of how unwanted objects (underlined) can be avoided. Note the new verbs employed. Readers may wish to cover up the expressions on the right and try to predict what they are:

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surprise everyone = CAUSE SURPRISE

regret something = FEEL REGRET

risk your safety = TAKE A RISK

introduce the topic = GIVE AN INTRODUCTION

discuss the question = HAVE A DISCUSSION

acquire something = MAKE AN ACQUISITION

heed it = TAKE HEED 

permit me = GIVE PERMISSION

treats the (medical) condition = PROVIDES TREATMENT

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2. Avoiding Unwanted Subjects

A major way to avoid an unwanted subject of a verb is, of course, to make the verb passive (unless it can be replaced with a different verb whose active form is equivalent to a passive – see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs). However, sometimes a passive verb is simply not possible (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). The verb with the unwanted subject may, for example, be intransitive (unable to be made passive – see 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive), or already in the passive form. Here is an example of an unwanted subject (we) with an intransitive verb:

(e) We did not seem to be progressing.

The problem of avoiding we in such sentences can again be solved by changing the main verb into a related noun, like this:

(f) Progress did not seem to be being made (= occurring).

An example of an unwanted subject with a passive verb is:

(g) People were instructed to return home.

To avoid saying people, just change instructed into an instruction, like this:

(h) An instruction was given to return home.

More examples of this strategy are in the post 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns. There is also an exercise at the end of this post that provides practice in it.

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USING EXPRESSIONS LIKE “make a decision” TO FACILITATE WORD ADDITIONS

Sometimes an expanded verb like make a decision is the only means of adding a particular idea to a sentence. Consider this:

(i) It is planned to make an essential improvement to the building.

Using the verb improve instead of make an improvement would make it difficult for the idea of “essential” to be included. In some other cases, including an idea like this is possible by means of an adverb, as in this example:

(j) The government must make a quick decision to raise taxes.

We could use the adverb quickly here with the basic verb decide (more on this use of adverbs is in the post 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs). This makes the expanded verb unnecessary here. However, in sentence (i) saying essentially improve would create a different meaning – essentially does not mean “vitally”. This means that changing the verb improve into the noun improvement and describing it with the adjective essential is the only way of adding the meaning of “essential” to the sentence. Another adjective like essential is large, while another like quick is visible.
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PRACTICE EXERCISE (AVOIDING UNWANTED WORDS)

How could each of the following be rewritten so that the underlined words are not mentioned? Answers are given below.

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1. You responded immediately.

2. The researcher was assisted by the hospital.

3. The aeroplane takes off at 21.30.

4. I concluded that the task was impossible.

5. When we are ordered to report early, we must hasten.

6. The committee met in the morning.

7. We should be addressed in Room B.

8. Mary’s book will be published next month.

9. Someone has died.

10. You are required to possess a passport.

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Answers (further alternatives may be possible)

1. An immediate response was made/given. (A response was given/made immediately).

2. Assistance was given (provided) by the hospital. ( … was received from … ).

3. Takeoff is (takes place) at 21.30.

4. The conclusion was (was reached) that the task was impossible.

5. When an order is given to report early, haste is needed (required).

6.  The meeting was (took place) in the morning.

7. The address should be (take place) in Room B.

8. Publication will be (take place) next month.

9. A death has occurred (taken place).

10. There is a requirement (a requirement exists) to possess a passport. (Possession of a passport is required).

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4 thoughts on “39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?

  1. Hi Paul
    By mistake, I found your website and it is a godsend. Not many website offers a good linguistic advice as your. However, after carefully reading how avoid “I” topic in one of the page, still find it difficult to avoiding writing “I”, specially when it comes to a job application. Of course, English is a second language. Find it tough expressing well in English. So, could you please put up more explanations and examples on that page. Thanks!

    • Hi Max. Thanks for your kind feedback and interesting question. I would say that using “I” is actually alright in job applications, since you, the writer, are very much the focus of the text. However, for talking about work experience in a curriculum vitae, it is quite common to find sentences that simply leave out “I” and begin with the verb (e.g. “Handled telephone enquiries”). More about this is in the post 93. Good and Bad Lists.

  2. I enjoy reading your posts. English is not my first language, but I spend a good part of my life writing clinical reports, which requires in certain style, in English. I am learning a lot from you, because I am practicing to write differently.

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