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Directing Action with Light Verbs

A reader once asked me about the phrase take a decision. Shouldn’t it be make a decision

In researching the answer, I learned that make and take were examples of “light verbs.” It’s a concept that few besides linguists are concerned with, if my research is accurate, but one that if writers were more aware of could have a profound effect on their writing.

Lightening the Load

A light verb refers to the light use of a verb. In other words, a light verb adds little meaning to the action of the sentence. Made is a light verb in the following first sentence; there’s really no difference in meaning between the first and second sentences:

After reviewing his company’s declining sales, the CEO made the decision to lay off workers.

After reviewing his company’s declining sales, the CEO decided to lay off workers.

Light verbs put the main action at arm’s length, in a noun farther along in the sentence. In one sense, this softens the action. Consider that the CEO made the decision to lay off workers doesn’t sound quite as horrible as the CEO decided to lay off workers.

The most common light verbs and some of the nouns they frequently pair with include:

Light VerbPairs withExample
Giveadvice, cough, description, gasp, kiss, laugh, sighSally gave the police a description of the man who mugged her.
Makeappeal, choice, copy, dash, decision, leap, offer, searchTom made a copy of his notes for the final exam.
Havebath, pity, rest, shave, sip, swim; chat, meeting, quarrelLisa had a chat with her roommate about the dishes in the sink.
Takebath, pity, rest, shave, sip, swim; dive, leap, decisionTake pity on the poor souls.
Docleaning, dive, knitting, report, sprint, thinking, workAfter doing all the cleaning, Robert finally did his report on Samuel Clemens.
Source: Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002

A few notes on the table:

  • The listed nouns are just a sampling of those that can pair with light verbs.
  • Have and take often overlap in the nouns they can pair with (e.g., bath, drink, pity), but not all nouns can take both (e.g., chat pairs only with have; leap pairs only with take). 
  • Make and take can both be paired with decision.
  • The do here is not the same as emphatic do (e.g., I do understand!).

Other light verbs you might find include offer, pay, put, and raise. These verbs don’t pair with as many nouns.

The Power of the Light

If light verbs downplay the main action of a sentence, why would you use them? Generally, they allow the action to be described more precisely:

Sandra gasped when she saw the wedding gown.

Sandra gave a small gasp when she saw the wedding gown.

Light verbs can also allow the action to be quantified:

Todd coughed to get our attention.

Todd gave a cough to get our attention.

In both situations, the action is more narrowly defined, clarifying the meaning. 

Losing the Light

Yet light verbs can also obscure meaning. For example, in Frank had a shave yesterday, did Frank shave himself or did someone else shave him? Context can sometimes clear up possible confusion. If not, though, choose the more direct option. Doing so has the advantage of highlighting the action, making it more immediate and direct: Frank shaved yesterday.

I’ve said it a few times now: light verbs can make the action less direct, robbing the sentence of some of its punch. As my reader noted, it seems as though using take a decision or make a decision distances the decision maker from the responsibility of the decision. 

Many times a sentence with a light verb can be rewritten with a more active verb, without losing clarity or precision:

Sandra gasped slightly when she saw the wedding gown.

Todd coughed once to get our attention.

Embrace the Light … or Not

Light verbs have their place. They allow the writer to more accurately describe the action, quantify the action, or soften it. Some light verbs are interchangeable, as with make/take a decision.

However, that softened action may not be desirable in your sentence. To make your writing more powerful, replace some light verbs with more direct verbs.

After all, why make a decision when you can decide?

A version of this article originally published in October 2013 on Visual Thesaurus.

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