Don’t let verbs stress your readers out!

Are you content with your content? Have you ever objected to an object? Have you ever been entranced by an entrance? Have you recorded the number of records you have? These word pairings all have three things in common.

  1. They’re made up of a noun (the name of something) and a verb (an action).
  2. They have different stress patterns depending on whether they’re a noun or a verb.
  3. They’re all an absolute nightmare for screen-reading technology.

English isn’t usually thought of as a tonal language like Thai or Navajo, but some English words have completely different meanings depending on where the stress in the word is.

For example:

content: to be happy with
but
content: the stuff inside a container

record: to write down
but
record: an account of an event

entrance: to be delighted with
but
entrance: the way in

contract: to shrink
but
contract: a legally binding document

object: to disagree with
but
object: a thing

The English At Home website has more examples of noun–verb pairings that rely on stress.

Choose words that don’t confuse screen-reading technology

Plain language is best when writing for people who might use screen-readers or other assistance technology. Screen-reading programs are automated and don’t use changes in tone as a human reading the words aloud would. Everything sounds like it’s being read by a machine, because it is. The machine is acting as the reader’s eyes in this case, and the person listening has to rely on context to understand the meaning of each sentence. If this context is not clear enough, important meaning could be lost.

Imagine you were asked to record your records and bring them into an office to get financial aid or healthcare, and there was no change in tone to let you know which record to bring. Hopefully the context of the request would mean you’d bring documents and not a vinyl disc, but what if that context wasn’t clear?

Instead of having a potentially confusing sentence such as:

Please record your records and bring them to our office

You could say:

Please bring a list of any important documents you have.

Instead of:

We’ll address the problem with your address.

Why not say:

We’ll look into the problem with your address.

Or even:

We’ll look into the problem with where you live.

Using plain, everyday language is the best way to avoid any kind of confusion and get your message across in a way that’s easy to understand.

Why some verb–noun pairings have stress

Most of the modern English words we use stem from either Old English or Old French. Before the Norman invasion of 1066, Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English, and the Norman conquerors spoke Old French.

Some modern English words stem from both Old English and Old French words that can be used as both a verb and a noun. It seems that the words that mark the differences between noun and verb in tone are mostly from a particular Old French verb declension introduced from about 1200 CE. A declension is where you change the ending of a verb to reflect what’s being done. For example, we can change the verb to run into will run, have run, runs, running, and ran.

Image, First page of the Beowulf manuscript.

English has changed a bit over the last few hundred years, but we still have some hangovers from its early days. Image from Wikipedia / Wikipedia Commons licence

Take the modern English word record, for example:

Record

Verb: 1200s, from Old French recorder (to tell, relate, repeat) directly from Latin recordari (to remember).
Noun: 1300s, from Old French record (memory, statement, report), derives from recorder (verb). First used to refer to written accounts of an event in the late fourteenth century.

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

Plain language at Write

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