Strong verbs are verbs that convey a lot of precise meaning without the help of modifiers or qualifications. Using strong verbs is usually an appropriate stylistic choice. Strong verbs make your writing more concise, help you avoid vague descriptions, and can keep your readers interested. When you don’t use a variety of strong verbs, you risk losing your readers’ interest with repetitive and bland verbs.
To identify whether you’re using strong verbs, identify all the verbs in your writing, evaluate whether those verbs are repetitive, and decide whether those verbs convey precise and evocative meanings.
1. First, review a representative sample of peer writing and highlight all of the verbs.
Systematic poverty is a consequence of structural disparities, not individual choices. In contemporary American society, people often have to select either personal fulfillment or economic security. But many people do not even have that choice. Inadequate education, healthcare, and nutrition all make people less likely to have the opportunity to get personal fulfillment or economic security, let alone both.
2. Second, evaluate wether your verbs are repetitive. For example, we can evaluate the verbs in the excerpt above:
Verbs: is, have to select, do not have, make, to have, to get
In the excerpt, 3 out of 6 verbs are some version of have. This feels very repetitive.
Note: Technically, the infinitives like “to select” and “to have” are not functioning grammatically like verbs in these sentences. These infinitive verbs can still contribute to a passage’s feeling of repetitiousness and imprecise meaning.
3. Third, decide whether your verbs convey precise meanings or rely on surrounding words to create meaning. For example, we can evaluate the verbs in the except just above.
Is, have, and get are all relatively imprecise verbs. They’re all-purpose because they can play a lot of roles in a sentence and don’t necessarily give us a strong sense of the action in a particular sentence. For example, “she is happy” conveys the same meaning as “she grinned broadly,” but the verb grin provides much more specific information than is does. It’s also a more interesting verb because it helps the reader conjure a mental image rather than just imagine an intangible feeling.
To select and make both convey relatively precise meanings. To select lets us know that a choice is being made, and make lets us know that either an action is forced to happen or something is fabricated. Of course, force and fabricate both convey stronger and more precise meanings, so they might be better choices for your writing.
Based on our evaluation, the sample excerpt repeatedly uses verbs that do not convey precise meanings. It is lacking in strong verbs.
How can I revise my writing to include more strong verbs?
To include more strong verbs, identify and replace repetitive and non-precise verbs. If necessary, revise other parts of sentences to accommodate the new strong verbs. For example, the sample paragraph above can be revised to the following:
Systematic poverty results from structural disparities, not individual choices. In contemporary American society, people often must choose between either personal fulfillment or economic security. But many people do not even have that choice. Inadequate education, healthcare, and nutrition all rob people of the opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment or economic security, let alone both.
In this example, many of the verbs are repetitive or non-specific. Even when they have relatively specific meanings (like have to select and make), replacing them with less common and more specific verbs can make the passage more interesting and clarify the writer’s views.
Revised: Systematic poverty results from structural disparities, not individual choices. (Here, the phrase is a consequence of is replaced by a single verb, results.)
Revised: In contemporary American society, people often must choose between either personal fulfillment or economic security. (Must choose is more succinct than have to select and eliminates the repetitive have.)
Revised: But many people do not even have that choice. (Once the other uses of have are replaced, this use is no longer repetitive.)
Revised: Inadequate education, healthcare, and nutrition all rob people of the opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment or economic security, let alone both. (Rob reveals the strong emotion raised by the injustice the author is writing about. To achieve fits the tone of this formal passage better than to get.)
The overall effect of these new, strong verbs is a passage that conveys information clearly and hints at the writer’s emotional engagement with the subject matter.
What are some common reasons for an ineffective lack of strong verbs?
There are many reasons writing may lack strong verbs. If your writing lacks strong verbs, check to see if any of these characteristics might be the reason:
- Overreliance on is and has. Is and has are both very versatile verbs. In some cases they’re necessary to using the right tense (e.g. “I had seen the prancercise video,” “The video is going viral.”) or they’re the most appropriate verb for the sentence (e.g. “I have a fever,” “I am hot.”). However, it’s easy to get in the habit of relying on these verbs. See the difference in this example when is and has are replaced with strong verbs.
Original: Malcolm has a hard time writing papers. He is very good at drawing, though.
Revised: Malcolm struggles with writing papers. He draws very well, though.
- Excessive nominalizations. Nominalizations are nouns created from other types of words, like adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Examples include demonstration from demonstrate, destruction from destroy, and hopefulness from hopeful. Using nominalizations is not necessarily wrong. However, using excessive nominalizations can bog down a piece of writing by replacing strong verbs with nominalizations of those verbs. In the revised example, the strong verbs make the action of the sentence clearer and better illustrated.
Original: Watson and Crick made the announcement of the discovery of DNA in 1953.
Revised: Watson and Crick announced that they had discovered DNA in 1953.
- Toning it down. Some writing occasions tempt us to avoid displaying strong emotion or seeming to take stand on an issue. While this avoidance is sometimes appropriate, sometimes it can suck the life out of writing, making it seem boring or dull. See how the revised example reveals more about the author’s perspective on the issue at hand.
Original: Exporting e-waste to developing countries can lead to poor environmental consequences.
Revised: Exporting e-waste to developing countries destroys the environment.
Should writing always include a variety of strong verbs?
In some cases, using more generic verbs can be appropriate. Technical writers who draft instructions for broad audiences often choose simple, well-known verbs which will be most accessible to the widest variety of readers. For example, although fabricate may be the most technically accurate choice, make might be the more accessible and appropriate.
When in doubt, consult a thesaurus to find stronger verbs–be cautious, though. A thesaurus is a great resource when used properly. Be sure that the word you choose is actually the best word for the situation!