Prefer Verbs to Nouns

My principle, v0.2

Prefer verbs to nouns.

When Bret Victor introduced the concept of a principle, he said a good principle can be applied “in a fairly objective way”. This is the biggest problem with my first draft, which took several sentences to define what a powerful way of thinking was. A principle must be general enough to apply to many situations, but also able to operationalize to find meaning in any specific situation. Devising or crafting a principle requires inductive reasoning (specific to general), but applying it demands deductive reasoning (general to specific). Forging a principle resembles Paul Lockhart’s vision of mathematics: an idea that at first may be questioned and refined, but at some point begins “talk back”, instructing its creator rather than being shaped by it.

I could have formulated the principle as verbs, not nouns or similar, but the principle itself demands a verb. I have chosen prefer, but I fear that may not be active enough; something closer to choose or emphasize verbs over nouns may more fitting. As the principle predicts, identifying a dichotomy and even choosing one side is easy compared to selecting the verb to encompass the process and relationship. This principle retains status as a draft, although unlike its predecessor it does not have the glaring flaw of subjective application. The verb (and preposition serving it) are still to be determined, and the possibility of cutting a new principle from whole cloth also remains open.

All of this without a discussion of the principle itself! Human language is endlessly versatile and adaptive, and therefore (in hindsight!) it is quite fitting that I use the terms of language itself. Of course the principle does not apply specifically to language, but any field that involves structures and the relationships between them, which is to say, any field at all. It can apply to essays, presentations, or works of art. Finding the verbs and nouns of a particular field is often easy, even if it is difficult to abstract the process. With that said, verbs are not always grammatically verbs; -ing and -tion nouns can be fine verbs for the purpose of the principle.

The verbs should be emphasized to your audience, but the setting will determine how you craft their experience. Most of the liberal arts require grappling with verbs directly; a good thesis is architected around a verb that relates otherwise disparate observations or schools of thought. By emphasizing the verbs, one communicates causal mechanisms, transformations, relationships, and differences across time, location, demographics, and other variables. The goal is not merely to show that the nouns differ (“the a had x but the b had y”), but why, what acted on them to cause the differences. Frequently the base material (often historical events or written works) are already known to your audience, and you need to contribute more than just a summary. You need to justify a distinction.

However, in the presence of detailed, substructured, and numeric nouns, it is often best to let them speak directly. Often the evidence itself is novel, such as a research finding, and you want to present it objectively. In such cases, more frequent in science and engineering, placing your audience’s focus on verbs requires that you place yours on presenting the nouns. The more nouns you have, the more ways they can relate to each other; the more detailed the nouns, the more nuanced those relationships can be. When the nouns are shown correctly, your audience will have a wide array of verbs available to them; Edward Tufte gives examples (Envisioning Information, 50):

select, edit, single out, structure, highlight, group, pair, merge, harmonize, synthesize, focus, organize, condense, reduce, boil down, choose, categorize, catalog, classify, list, abstract, scan, look into, idealize, isolate, discriminate, distinguish, screen, pigeonhole, pick over, sort, integrate, blend, inspect, filter, lump, skip, smooth, chunk, average, approximate, cluster, aggregate, outline, summarize, itemize, review, dip into, flip through, browse, glance into, leaf through, skim, refine, enumerate, glean, synopsize, winnow the wheat from the chaff, and separate the sheep from the goats

The ability to act in these ways is fragile.  Inferior works destroy verb possibilities (science and engineering) or never present them at all (liberal arts). Verbs are the casualties of PowerPoint bullets; nouns can often be picked out from the shrapnel but the connections between them are lost. But conversely, a focus on verbs promotes reason and the human intellect. Verbs manifest cognition and intelligence. Emphasizing verbs is a proxy and litmus test for cogent thought.


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