What do you make of the following sentence:
Such initiatives are anticipated to further stimulate dialogue and action steps that begin to move the field forward in this critical area.
Is action an acceptable word here?*
Colloquial slang, double meanings, and industry-specific jargon can make language puzzling. Industry jargon can be particularly confusing to writers and editors new to the topic. In our example, we’re dealing with the dreaded business jargon. Mysterious in its meaning, it’s often found in annual reports, white papers, and other wonders of business writing. (Am I being too snarky? If so, I apologize; I’ve read and edited more than my share of business jargon.)
When I first read this sentence, I thought action was modifying steps to mean the initiatives will encourage the creation of steps. And not just any steps, but steps that require action. I immediately connected action steps with action items, a popular phrase in business jargon. These are short-term items that the employee must complete; they can be as mundane as items on a to-do list or as important as goals on your annual salary review.
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Rereading the sentence, though, I realized it was saying that talking (dialogue) will be stimulated and steps will be actioned. Can you see the problem?
Although initiatives can stimulate dialogue, what are they doing with steps? The writer is looking for a concise way to describe something. Usually when I see action as a verb, the writer means to take action. Initiatives can’t take action, though, so who is taking action? The sentence doesn’t say and without context, we don’t know.
Generally, I’m not against using jargon in its proper place. I’ve even accepted impact as a verb … at least in business writing. To me, action as a verb is still on the fringe of business jargon and is not universally defined, let alone universally accepted. It wasn’t in any business jargon list I checked, and most did list action items.
Action as a verb doesn’t immediately conjure any meaning in my mind, hence my initial confusion. If a word’s meaning isn’t settled, it’s usually a bad idea to use it—at least without explaining it.
All of that said: yes, action has been used as a verb in business writing, but we need to be clear about who’s doing the actioning. Few, if any, other writing styles will tolerate this usage, either. If you come across action being used as a verb and can find a better word to use instead, by all means do!
*You might ask if action is a word, but if something has a shared meaning, it’s a word. Whether it’s acceptable to language users is the question. See more in Dictionary.com’s “How New Words Get Added to Dictionary.com—And How the Dictionary Works.”
A version of this article originally published in the April–May 2011 issue of Copyediting newsletter.