© Nani, 2013

36. Can the Subject do the Verb?

The subject of a sentence must be capable of doing the action implicit in the verb to which it is attached. In formal writing this ability should be simple and clear, without poetic or imaginative leaps of logic. For instance, rivers can "run," "flow," "flood," or even "meander," but they cannot "leap for joy," "flutter," "promenade majestically down the valley," or "grunt." Sound formal style steers away from lyricism. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to "personify" objects—Disney should be sued—which can lead to confusing imagery. When you are describing the action some thing takes, make sure to evaluate whether that object is easily seen as engaging in that action. If not, find a different action that more simply makes your point. There is a place for creative imagery in this world, but formal writing is not that place.

•  Bad Example: “The Kassites drive researchers mad.”

  It is perfectly viable to suggest that the study of some little-known historical entity can be frustrating. However, that's not what this phrase says. The Kassites, an ancient Mesopotamian culture for which comparatively little documentary evidence exists, do not take researchers for a wild ride in some ancient, Flintstonian Buick. The author probably means that the lack of documentary evidence frustrates modern researchers and may indeed cause them a certain degree of anxiety, which is all too often part of the research process. In literal terms, however, the Kassites cannot "drive" anyone anywhere, much less to insanity.

• Bad Example: “The temple records found at Lagash show a net reduction in crop yields as a result of salinized soil.”

  Temple records, as an inanimate object, cannot show anyone anything. "Reveal" or "document" or "evidence" is better, since these are all actions that "records" can readily do. This common misuse of the verb “to show” ought to be shown the door.

•  Bad Example: “The Arabian desert sees little to no rain in the summer months.”


Oh my! I imagine a whole desert of little eyes popping up looking about for rain, something like the disembodied eyes of an Arabian Punxsutawney Phil. If the author means the desert receives little rainfall, or that precipitation is rare in the deserts of the Near East, he should say it that way because that's what the desert can actually do.

Note: Personification of objects is sometimes permissible in formal writing. Please see the discussion of metaphors below in Section 39.
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