300 Days of Better Writing

August 1, 2012

Use the rhetorical action as the main verb.


A sentence may have several verbs. However, the verb in the “verb’s place” following the subject is generally the main verb upon which the rest of the sentence hangs. Consider this sentence:

“Julie thinks Tom is silly.”

In this sentence, “thinks” is the main verb following the subject “Julie.”

The main action in a sentence is called the rhetorical action. The rhetorical action is the action that the sentence is about. The main verb and the rhetorical action might not be the same. (Generally, when we are trying to identify the rhetorical subject, we first have to identify the rhetorical action.)

If the main verb and the rhetorical action are not the same, then the sentence has a problem. In clear writing, they should be the same word. Consider this sentence:

“The long days of summer are when Susan plays in the grass.”

In this poorly written sentence, the main verb is “are,” which follows the grammatical subject “The long days of summer.” However, the main action is not “are.” The rhetorical action, what this sentence is about, is “plays.”

We want the main verb and the rhetorical action to be the same, so “plays” needs to be the main verb. The subject of “plays” is “Susan.” When we use “Susan” as the subject (grammatical and rhetorical), and “plays” as the main verb, we get

“Susan plays in the grass in the long days of summer.”

Now, the grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject are the same, the rhetorical action and the main verb are the same, and the entire sentence is clearer, smoother, and more direct.


This is the strategy for day 9 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.


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  • 2 essential word choices from Which Word Do I Use?
  • 1 major comma use from Zen Comma
  • 1 section on main verbs from Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing

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