131. Uses of “Action” Nouns

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There are various reasons why a writer might prefer to express an action with a noun instead of a verb

THE EXISTENCE OF “ACTION” NOUNS IN ENGLISH

Various Guinlist posts highlight the fact that in English an action can sometimes be expressed as easily by a noun as by a verb (see especially 14. Action Outcomes and 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1). A noun with this ability (such as movement) usually looks like its related verb (move), often distinguished by a specific suffix like -ment, -tion, -al, -ure or -ence but in some cases – e.g. increase, change – showing no spelling change at all. In most cases, the action meaning will not always exist in the noun, but will be recognisable when the noun follows the grammar rules of “uncountable” rather than “countable” nouns (see 14. Action Outcomes and 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).

The properties of action nouns make them very similar to gerunds – verbs given noun-like properties by the addition of -ing (see 70. Gerunds); the two forms are indeed often interchangeable, as in the following example:

(a) Success (= Succeeding) in examinations follows hard work (= working hard).

However, action nouns are not exactly the same as gerunds. They cannot be used instead of one corresponding to an earlier it (see in 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb), whereas in some other places they are the better choice. This post is mainly about the special value of action nouns. Some of the points are repeated from other posts, but the aim here is to give a more complete overview. Much of what is suggested should be understood as applicable to gerunds as well (though perhaps with slightly less formality), unless there is a statement to the contrary.

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LIST OF ACTION NOUN USES

Action nouns seem to have the following major uses.

1. Saying Something about an Action

To appreciate this use, compare the following:

(b) Penicillin was discovered by Fleming.

(c) The discovery of penicillin (by Fleming) has saved many lives.

Sentence (b) is focussed on naming something that happened, and does so with a verb. Sentence (c) names the same action but is more focussed on adding something extra about it. To facilitate this, the action is made into a noun that is the subject of another verb (normal-form verbs cannot ever be the subject of other verbs). In other cases, the action might be the object of a verb or follow a preposition, like this:

(d) Doctors CELEBRATE the discovery of penicillin.

(e) Many lives have been saved SINCE the discovery of penicillin.

Gerunds do not seem the same as action nouns in this use. For example, replacing discovery in (c) above with discovering feels a little strange. The reason may be that gerunds, like other -ing words, give more focus to the time during an action, and hence in (c) would suggest that the saving of lives happened while the discovering was taking place, rather than after it. A gerund would be more suitable than an action noun in a statement like seeing is believing (= belief develops during seeing). The two different ways of viewing actions are often called “aspect” in grammar. More examples are in the posts 52. Participles Placed Just after their Noun,  103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb and 148. Infinitive Verbs without “to”.

One kind of information that professional writers seem especially fond of providing about actions is their relation to other actions – a function more typically associated with conjunctions, e.g.

(f) If alcohol is consumed to a certain level, consciousness is lost.

The conjunction if here expresses the relation of cause-effect between the two underlined verbs (see 118. Problems with Conditional “If”). For other conjunction meanings, see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors.

Sentence (f) can be paraphrased using action nouns like this:

(g) Consumption of alcohol to a certain level causes loss of consciousness.

Here, the two verbs in (f) have become action nouns, and the meaning of if is expressed by the verb causes. Relation-showing verbs like this are just as important as the action nouns. Other common examples (with any corresponding preposition in brackets) are LEAD TO (if, as, since, because), RESULT IN (if, as since, because), CONTRIBUTE TO, ALLOW, ENABLE, PERMIT, ENSURE, FACILITATE, DEPEND ON, RESULT FROM (because, since), REQUIRE, NECESSITATE, INVOLVE, PREVENT (so that … not), MINIMISE, MAXIMISE, PRECEDE (before), FOLLOW (after) and ACCOMPANY (while, when).

It will be observed that verbs of cause-effect are particularly common. More about them is in the posts 32. Expressing Consequences and 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”.

A major question when a conjunction is possible is why action nouns might be preferable, since they are unwieldy and very formal-sounding. Sometimes I think that professional writers do overuse action nouns at the expense of simplicity. However, one possible advantage is that, like connectors, they – or rather the verb accompanying them – allow the relation to be expressed more precisely, since conjunctions can be quite vague (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors).

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2. Showing Links between Sentences

One reason why a writer might want to say something about an action rather than just name it is that the naming has already been done in a previous sentence, like this:

(h) The heat of the sun causes moisture to evaporateThis evaporation enables clouds to form.

In such cases, the action noun is performing the secondary role of linking sentences together. More on linking by means of repetition is in the post 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition. Quite often, the repetition is helping to create a “connector synonym” (see 112. Synonyms of Connectors), showing a sentence relation like “result”. Note that this is a common partner of noun-form repetition at the start of a sentence (see 28. Pronoun Errors).

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3. Avoiding Undesirable Words

Word avoidance is a familiar concept in explanations of passive verbs, thanks to their ability to leave the subject of their active equivalent unmentioned. Verb subjects might need to be avoided for any of various reasons, such as being too informal (an especial problem with I/we/you – see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), or too obvious to mention (e.g. the police arrested the culprit), or unknown (e.g. someone broke the window), or a secret.

Action nouns facilitate avoidance of undesirable subjects in the same way as passive verbs. They are particularly useful when the subject is of a verb that cannot go into the passive voice because it is either intransitive (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive) or already passive, as in these examples:

(i) The river flows northwards.

(j) I was interviewed in the summer.

The subject in (i) can be avoided by changing the underlined words to The flow is …, while informal I in (j) disappears with The interview took place … . In both cases, the verb is changed into its corresponding action noun (flow, interview) along with an appropriate “dummy” verb (is, took place) to keep the sentence grammatical.

At first sight, action nouns seem useful for avoiding unwanted objects as well as subjects. Consider the way the uninformative word matter is avoided here:

(k) The committee finally made a decision (= decided the matter).

In fact, the countable noun a decision here is not strictly an “action” one, but rather an “action outcome” (see 14. Action Outcomes). Such nouns seem the norm when an object needs to be omitted. For more examples, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?

Note that subjects and objects of verbs do not have to be dropped when the verb becomes an action noun. For advice on how to keep them, see 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2.

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4. Avoiding a Passive Verb

Sentence (j) above illustrates a passive verb that can be replaced by an action noun in order to leave its subject unmentioned. Sometimes, however, a passive verb is not as suitable as an action noun simply because the passive form itself is undesirable. The Guinlist post 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs defends the use of passive verbs but admits that sometimes their avoidance might be better. Here is an example of a passive verb that has an acceptable subject but nevertheless might be better as an action noun:

(l) Failure to declare restricted goods will necessitate their being confiscated (by customs officers).

The underlined passive here has the virtue of enabling the words customs officers to be left unmentioned, but is rather unwieldy. The sentence reads more smoothly if these words are replaced by the action noun confiscation. For more examples, see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”.

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5. Naming Actions in Contexts Demanding Nouns

Sometimes when we come to mention an action, the surrounding words or the situation prevent our using a verb. There is a good example in the post 93. Good and Bad Lists:

(m) Foreign language learning requires motivation and … .

Here, we could not use the verb phrase study regularly because we are continuing a list that has begun with a noun (motivation), the rule being that the first item in a list determines the grammatical form of all the others. The problem is solved by changing study regularly into regular study: a noun combined with an adjective instead of a verb plus adverb. One could also use the gerund phrase studying regularly, but the noun use is shorter.

Nouns are also required after prepositions (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). Actions are probably not a common kind of meaning in this situation, but a few particular prepositions seem especially likely to have one. One is means-showing by (see 73. Saying How with “By” and “With”), as in this example:

(n) Optimum commodity prices can be found by construction of a demand curve.

The gerund form constructing seems smoother here (it needs no following of – see 70. Gerunds), but sometimes an action noun will fit better. Action nouns are also common after for in contexts where it can express a purpose (see 60. Purpose Sentences with “for”).

Another noun-requiring context is titles and headings. For example, instead of saying X is Analysed, one would normally write Analysis of X. It seems especially common to find essay instruction verbs made into nouns in this way.

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6. Asking “How” Questions Indirectly

Indirect questions can begin with either a noun or a question word (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing). In “how” questions, a starting noun is likely to be an action one, like this:

(o) This chapter explains demand measurement (= how to measure demand).

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PRACTICE EXERCISE (ACTION NOUNS)

Interested readers are invited to try and reword each of the following with an action noun (Answers below).

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1. When temperatures rise, clouds form (Showing a relation).

2. It is necessary to analyse how colds are spread (Asking a “how” question).

3. Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate (Avoiding a passive).

4. Nobody likes it when they lose vital data (Talking about an action).

5. Herds of wildebeest periodically migrate across Tanzania seeking food. An amazing spectacle is created (Showing text links).

6. Workers can reduce malaria if they minimise mosquito bites (Action after by).

7. To alleviate poverty, the Government must act (Showing a relation).

8. Visual aids will help an audience to enjoy a presentation (Avoiding an unwanted verb subject).

9. You must not take photographs (Avoiding an unwanted subject).

10. It is important to observe changes (Talking about an action).

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Suggested Answers (Action Nouns Underlined)

1. A rise in temperatures causes the formation of clouds.

2. It is necessary to analyse the spread of colds.

3. The destruction of forests is happening at an alarming rate.

4. Nobody likes the loss of vital data.

5. Herds of wildebeest periodically migrate across Tanzania seeking food. This migration creates an amazing spectacle.

6. Workers can reduce malaria by minimisation of mosquito bites.

7. The alleviation of poverty requires Government action.

8. Visual aids will help (audience) enjoyment of a presentation.

9. Photography is prohibited/not allowed.

10. Observation of changes is important.

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