Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Verb Traffic Control

A very common problem for many writers (and speakers) is what I call Verb Pile Up. This means that you have too many verbs in the sentence, and your meaning is obscured or at the very least, is less clear than it could be.


Let’s put first things first: a verb is an action word, and is the central element in the predicate of a sentence. Verbs express an act, occurrence, or mode of being, and provide a sense of what is happening or how it happens. Verbs include “helping” verbs, like “to have” and “to be” and autonomous verbs, like “to run,” to show,” and “to think.”


The subject of a sentence is usually a pronoun (“I,” “you,” “he,” “they”) or a noun and the words that describe the noun, like definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”), and adjectives (words that describe), like “strong,” “flowing,” and “purple.” The predicate of a sentence says what happens to the noun part. Here’s a simple sentence:


The man had a cold.


“The man” is the subject and "man" is the noun. That’s who is doing the deed. The deed is “a cold” and the verb is “had.” It’s simple, right? So what’s the difference between that sentence and this one:


The man had had a cold.


Does this mean the same thing as the first sentence? Nope. This new sentence has two verbs in the predicate, and the implication is that the man no longer has the cold. Both forms of the verb indicate past tense. The first example implies that he either used to have a cold or he did when you wrote about him. Here’s how he looks in present tense:


The man has a cold.


This fellow is miserable right now. Here’s how he looks when he had a cold earlier and he doesn’t have one now:


The man has had a cold.


The subtle difference is that in “had had,” you say that the man is now healthy, although he recently had the sniffles. In “has had,” you say that he is healthy now, but he has known the drama of a cold in his lifetime.


You can see that there is good reason to pile up verbs occasionally. Now, look at some less deliberate efforts, and you’ll see why I hop all over verb pile-ups.


I have eaten spaghetti.


On first glance, this seems pretty clear; it fits into the “has had” category in that you are saying that in your life, you have found a nice bowl of noodles before you, and you consumed it. Maybe that’s what you need to say. But if the question was “what did you have for dinner last night,” your answer is too vague. How do you fix it?


The trick is to look for the “real” action verb. You know from my handy little list at the beginning that “to have” is a helping verb. It helps another verb by refining it in the “has had,” “had had” way. Drop the helping verb out of the way (this should always be your first tactic when looking to simplify).


You know that “I” is the subject. You know that spaghetti, because it’s a noun, can’t be a verb (oh, don’t get me started on the whole noun into verb thing…). You can plop the word “to” in front of the root of “eaten” and get “to eat” (the infinitive form), so “eat” is the other verb.


Next, look at two things: the subject and the tense. The subject is “I,” and that conjugates to “I eat.” “I eat spaghetti” may be true, but it’s not the right answer to “what did you have for dinner last night?” You need past tense: “I ate spaghetti.” See? Simple.


Now try something more complicated.


I have been taking Bill’s code and using it in my own applications.


In the first part (before the “and”), there are three nouns: “I,” “Bill’s,” “and code.” These are all names of something, so they remain unchanged. The verbs in the first part are “have,” “been,” and “taking.” The second part (after the conjunction “and”) includes the verb “using.” Drop all the helping verbs (“have” and “been”) first, to see whether the sentence still means the same thing. You have to conjugate “taking” to go with “I” and make it past tense (like the helping verbs were), and you have to change “using” to match in the back end of the sentence.


I took Bill’s code and used it in my own applications.


In the first sentence, the implication is that the speaker has steadily used Bill’s work in his own in the past and continues to do so. This new sentence says that in the past, Bill’s code was used in applications that the speaker (who is not Bill) wrote, and perhaps only one particular bit of code was used repeatedly. This new sentence does not specify how often this happened nor which application. There are a lot of unanswered questions—nearly as many as in the original sentence. Here’s another try, with one of the helping verbs back in:


I have taken Bill’s code and used it in my own applications.


This sentence says the same thing as the previous sentence, but this one sounds like a confession of wrongdoing or perhaps a tribute to Bill’s code. Maybe we don’t need the conjunction anymore. We can get rid of another verb that way. Here’s another try:


I have used Bill’s code in my own applications.


The sentence is really getting simpler. This sentence says that Bill’s code was part of the speaker’s applications in the past. It does not specify which code or which applications, and it has an implied positive note to it: Bill’s code did what the speaker needed in his application, so he used Bill’s instead of re-inventing the wheel. This is probably pretty close to what the speaker wanted to say before the verb pile up happened.


Here’s another one:


I used Bill’s code in my own applications.


This is simple past tense. The speaker makes a declaration of a fact, and there are no implications, other than that all the code in the speaker’s applications is not his own. You could simplify even further and drop out “own,” as it’s somewhat repetitive at this point, and then you’ve got:


I used Bill’s code in my applications.


Does this mean the same thing as the original sentence? I think it does, only it’s much clearer and more direct. There is no room for misunderstanding here. You could even go one further and make it present tense:


I use Bill’s code in my applications.


This has a different meaning; it implies that the speaker has used, and will continue to use, Bill’s code in the future. If you want to be clear that Bill’s code does not make up the entirety of the application, change the preposition:


I used Bill’s code within my applications.


If you’re looking to cut text for an overlong piece, the difference between the 13 words in the first version and the seven words in the last can really add up, sentence by sentence! And you leave little room for misinterpretation.


Here’s a pop quiz, for those who care to play. Don’t respond in Comments, or everyone else will see the correct answers (and probably some wrong ones). Email me directly, at, and I’ll let you know how you’ve done.


Diminish ambiguity by eliminating verb pile ups. (Clue: Repair the mixed tenses first.)

We are redoing the patio and have made it into a dog run.

Students who are taking the test may form a line at the door.

The players who have been working hard will be improving.

I have been having fun writing bad sentences.

Adrienne has wanted a Purple People Plotter and she has ordered one on Thursday.