Language threatened: verbs face extinction, gerunds banned

Passing through Stockholm Arlanda airport last week I heard an announcement that made me despair about the language skills or Ordinary People. "Ladies and Gentlemen we have an overbooking situation". I have heard exactly the same construction used frequently in London. "Ladies and Gentlemen the 10:17 to Bruce Grove will be late because of staff shortage situation". Ouch!

Whatever happened to verbs, those useful little words that make writing both clear and vivid. Why not say "the flight to Amsterdam is overbooked", or better still "we have overbooked the flight to Amsterdam". And you do not have a "staff shortage situation", you are short of staff. Likewise the newpaper article saying "there is serious under-reporting of this type of crime" should be "this kind of crime is under-reported", or better still, "this kind of crime is rarely reported".

I think I will write a little note about this problem and how you can fix it. It will be on my website in a few days!

In related news, several people have sent me links to an article about a Brazilian governer who has banned the use of gerunds in official communications to force people to actually do something, rather than saying that they are working on it. (See, for example, the Bloomberg coverage at This is an intriguing idea, but what interested me the most was that gerunds were actually the subject of a news story. I have not seen gerunds figure so prominently in anything since Willans & Serle's classic Molesworth books (see for an explanation). Talk about gerunds and like so many other fans of these books the first thought is Ronald Serle's illustrations of gerunds drawn as rat like animals, attacking some peaceful pronouns, or being led into captivity.


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