One of the surest signs that someone is trying to impress you with an image of indomitable force and steamroller determination is the tendency to drop ACTION into every other sentence — especially in tortured constructions where the word turns into a verb or modifier.

A brusque, no-nonsense colleague recently recommended to me “a couple of action items with which to move forward” on a stalled project — a gust of verbal cold air that instantly put me on double notice: We would not be wasting our time on merely inert items, and we would not be moving backward or sideways, as other people are prone to do. Apparently the simple expression “let’s get these two things done” would have immobilized us or ground our gears into reverse. By now, the redundant expressions “action items,” “action plans,” and “action agendas” are all but ubiquitous.

Far sillier, though increasingly common, is the verb TO ACTION, as in “the committee decided that it would action only the first two items” — presumably leaving the other items inactioned until later. Laugh if you will, but this verbal fad seems to be sweeping the English-speaking world far beyond the inner cloisters of philanthropy.4 Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an American general proudly reported that Iraqis were bringing his troops useful information about local troublemakers “because they feel confident we will action on it.” I believe the Iraqis will back me up on this point: Confidence is one thing the verb TO ACTION does not inspire.

At the risk of making a crude generalization, I’d speculate that any time you find the word ACTION overused, especially as a verb or adjective, you are someplace where too little is being done. When people are really sweating, and bold events are whizzing by, there is usually no time for pomposities like “action this.” As I recall, you never heard Errol Flynn talk about “action” while he was hanging by one hand from a mizzen mast with the cannonballs flying, but ACTION was the first word the critics clung to, from the safety of their office chairs, on the morning after the premier.

Leave a Reply