Using a Bruce Springsteen Lyric to Explore Buried-Verb Alternatives

As I was driving in my car yesterday, the Bruce Springsteen song “Streets of Philadelphia” came on. The second line of the lyrics caught my attention: “I was unrecognizable to myself.”

It wasn’t because of the imagery or anything hifalutin like that. Instead, I noted that use of the adjective unrecognizable was an interesting choice.

For most utterances, you could elect to use an abstract noun. An abstract noun is a word used for something you can’t see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. Administration. Hunger. Elimination. And so on. They seem unobjectionable, but use more than a minimal number of abstract nouns and you start writing like a bureaucrat. That’s the case in any kind of prose, including contracts. And you get to play that favorite game, Hide the Actor. That’s particularly important for contracts: compare when Acme notifies Widgetco with upon notification of Widgetco.

A déformation professionnelle of mine is that I’m acutely sensitive to use of abstract nouns. Ask my long-suffering daughter Sydney about that: we’ve been known to pounce when the other uses a clunky abstract noun.

Aim to use a verb instead of a clunky abstract noun; you’ll say whatever it is more concisely and vigorously. (That’s why I, and others, use the phrase “buried verbs” to refer to use of abstract nouns. You could use the word “nominalization” instead, but I find it a little too ironic to use a clunky abstract noun to refer to use of clunky abstract nouns.) Or you could use an adjective instead; sometimes that’s your only choice.

Here’s an example of how the choices play out:

  1. the amount of Acme’s indebtedness [abstract noun]
  2. the amount by which Acme is in debt [adjectival phrase]
  3. how much Acme owes [verb]

The verb wins; no surprise.

Now back to that Springsteen lyric. Here it is, with two alternatives:

  1. I failed at self-recognition [abstract noun]
  2. I was unrecognizable to myself [adjective]
  3. I didn’t recognize myself [verb]

The abstract-noun alternative is preposterous, but you see that sort of thing in contracts all the time. The actual lyric is fine, but the version with the verb is shorter and simpler. I assume Springsteen didn’t use it because it didn’t scan appropriately.

Unless you want to risk having your prose be a corpse on the mortuary slab, become attuned to abstract nouns. You don’t have to be oddly compulsive about it like me, but it wouldn’t hurt!

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.