Verbal Nouns

What Are Verbal Nouns?

homesitemapA-Z grammar terms verbal nouns
A verbal noun is a noun that has no verb-like properties despite being derived from a verb.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Verbal Nouns
  • Examples of Verbal Nouns in Quotations
  • The Difference between Verbal Nouns and Gerunds
  • A Broader Definition of "Verbal Noun"
  • Why Verbal Nouns Are Important
  • Test Time!

Examples of Verbal Nouns

Verbal nouns are formed in a number of ways (usually by adding a suffix to the base form of the verb). For example:
VerbVerbal NounExample in a Sentence
To buildbuilding It was a lovely building .
The money will fund the building of a bridge.
To arrivearrivalTheir arrival has been delayed.
To repeatrepetitionI do not want another repetition of yesterday.
To decidedecisionThat was an awful decision by the referee.
To attackattackHe mounted a surprise attack with the Romans.
(Note: With some verbs, the verbal noun is identical to the base form of the verb.)

Examples of Verbal Nouns in Quotations

Being normal nouns, verbal nouns can be modified by adjectives, be pluralized (if the sense allows), and be followed by prepositional phrases (e.g., ...of men, me).
  • No man saw the building of the New Jerusalem; it descended out of heaven from God (Historian John Robert Seeley)
  • We're seeing the arrival of conversational robots that can walk in our world. (Robot designer David Hanson)
  • I need to die for the killing of those people. (American serial killer Aileen Wuornos)
  • Malicious attacks on the Soviet Union produce a natural feeling of indignation. (Soviet politician Yuri Andropov)

The Difference between Verbal Nouns and Gerunds

Verbal nouns are not the same as gerunds (another type of noun formed from a verb). A gerund is a noun that, having derived from a verb, retains a few verb-like properties. For example, a gerund can be modified by an adverb and can take a direct object.

Compare these two examples. The first is a verbal noun, the second is a gerund.
verbal noun
  • This bad drawing of a dog is not acceptable for your project.
  • (This is a verbal noun. It is acting just like a noun. Just as any noun could have, it has a determiner (This) and an adjective (bad), and it is followed by a prepositional phrase (of a dog).)
  • Badly drawing a dog is not acceptable for your project.
  • (This is a gerund. It is functioning as a noun, but it has two notable verb-like properties. Just as any verb could have, it has an adverb (badly) and a direct object (a dog).)

A Broader Definition of "Verbal Noun"

For many grammarians, the term verbal noun has a much broader definition, which covers all verb-derived words that can function as nouns, such as gerunds and infinitives (both of which retain verb-like qualities).

Gerunds. All gerunds end -ing (e.g., building, arriving, killing).
  • Killing women and children indiscriminately revolts my soul. (Paraphrase of a quotation by US President Herbert Hoover about the atomic bomb)
  • (Despite being a noun, the gerund killing is showing some verb-like properties. It has taken a direct object (women and children) and is modified by an adverb (indiscriminately).)
Infinitive. The infinitive form of a verb (the form with to in front) can function as a noun.
  • To kill women and children indiscriminately revolts my soul.
  • (To kill is the infinitive form of the verb. In this example, it is functioning as a noun, just like the gerund above.)
Grammarians who ascribe to the broader definition of verbal noun often describe verbal nouns with no verb-like properties as "pure verbal nouns." Here's the same example written with a "pure verbal noun."
  • The indiscriminate killing of women and children revolts my soul.
  • (Notice that killing has the following modifiers: The (a determiner), indiscriminate (an adjective), and of women and children (a prepositional phrase). These are all good indicators that you're dealing with a pure verbal noun.)

Why Verbal Nouns Are Important

Verbal nouns (or pure verbal nouns as they're sometimes called) are common in business writing because they carry an air of formality. As a result, it is not uncommon to read a sentence like this in business email:
  • The implementation of the new system will commence on Monday.
  • (This formal sentence features the pure verbal noun implementation.)
So, if you're looking for a formal tone, you could consider verbal nouns for your sentences. However, verbal nouns can also portray you as straight-laced and starchy.

Here are two good reasons to avoid verbal nouns:

(Reason #1 to Avoid a Verbal Noun) Pure verbal nouns eat up your word count.

As verbal nouns are often preceded by a or the and followed by a prepositional phrase (e.g., ...of men, ...about women), they are pretty inefficient from a word count perspective.
  • They were having a discussion about the implementation of the new rules.
  • (With two pure verbal nouns, this sentence has 12 words.)
  • They were discussing implementing the new rules.
  • (A simple rewording to avoid the verbal nouns cuts the word count to 7 with no loss of meaning. The efficiency is achieved by losing the articles (a and the) and by using words that can take direct objects, which kills the need for prepositions (about and of).)

(Reason #2 to Avoid a Verbal Noun) A string of pure verbal nouns does not flow naturally.

Businessmen's penchant for verbal nouns sometimes causes them to string their nouns together, creating jerky non-flowing sentences.
  • Your explanation of the expectations of the community was clear.
  • (Jerky)
  • You explained the community's expectations clearly.
  • (When you've got a string of nouns, replacing one with a verb (here, explained) is a good way to create a smoother sentence.)
Here's a good reason to use verbal nouns:

(Reason #1 to Use a Verbal Noun) A pure verbal noun can add a little emphasis.

Even though verbal nouns can sound stuffy, that air of formality can provide emphasis.
  • The careful selection of adjectives is essential.
  • Selecting adjectives carefully is essential.
  • (With its pure verbal noun, the top version sounds more authoritative and convincing.)

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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