“Use strong verbs” is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won’t do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification–or, one is tempted to say, a debasement–of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don’t worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

Consider the sentence, Fernando went away. That sentence conveys a certain amount of information, but it doesn’t give the reader a whole lot to look at. There are lots of ways for Fernando to go away: Fernando left. Fernando absconded. Fernando split. Fernando vamoosed. Fernando hightailed it. Fernando slunk off. Fernando stormed out. Fernando vanished. Fernando was called away.

Is absconded a stronger verb than slunk off? Is hightailed it stronger than stormed out? These aren’t helpful questions. The helpful question is, which verb most precisely depicts what you mean for your reader to see?

Every now and then I run across a list of strong verbs offered as a resource for writers (usually young writers). The problem with such lists is that they suggest that if you plug better words into your sentences, you can expect to have better sentences. But good descriptive writing starts with vision, not with word choice. You have to forget about words long enough to envision the scene you’re trying to depict. As you get better at picturing what is happening in your sentences, the right verbs begin to take care of themselves.

Saying ‘say’

One of these weeks I plan to devote a whole letter to verbs of attribution, but since we’re talking about strong verbs, I should say at least a little on this subject now. Verbs of attribution are those verbs that tell you who is speaking a bit of dialogue (“Linda said” or “the old man warbled“). Some writing teachers treat attribution as an excellent opportunity to trot out strong verbs. It is not. “Don’t say ‘say,'” they might say. I have also heard “Said is dead.” Ignore this advice. I usually stick to the straightforward verbs of attribution, such as said, asked, answered, shouted (I’ll get into the exceptions, as well as my reasoning, in a subsequent letter).

I ran across one dispenser of writing advice who offered up the following sentence for improvement:

     Cindy said she was tired of hiking.

Lame, he said. What this sentence needs, he said, is a stronger verb to jazz things up. Like this:

     Cindy contended that she was tired of hiking.

I can imagine a situation in which contended is the better verb in this sentence, but only just barely. Who would be contending against Cindy on the subject of whether or not Cindy is tired of hiking? This is the kind of strangeness that ensues when we are more committed to strong verbs than to precise verbs.

Some thoughts on ‘to be’ verbs

The to be verb (is, are, am, was, were, be, being, been) is the whipping boy of strong verb enthusiasts, so I feel I must say a word or two in its defense. 

The conventional wisdom is that cutting down on to be verbs is a way of making your sentences more active. That’s true enough. Last week’s issue of The Habitlooked at the way the passive voice attenuates the action in a sentence. In a coming week I will discuss nominalization (the habit of turning, say, “Leonard knew…” into “Leonard was conscious of the fact that…”), which also neutralizes action in much the same way. Both of these troublesome writing habits depend on the to be verb. So, yes, it is a good practice to go back through your prose and identify to be verbs as a way of identifying such writing problems as passive voice, nominalization, and stasis where you could have activity.

But that is not to say that the to be verb is itself a writing problem. 

There are two main kinds of verbs: action verbs, which communicate action (Martha ran, Martha sits, Martha slept, Martha feels, Martha strove), and linking verbs, which communicate states of being (Martha is light on her feet, Martha was the mayor of Tullahoma, Martha smells like peanuts). To be is by far the most common of the linking verbs.

There is no shame in communicating states of being. It’s one of the main things writers do. And the main way writers communicate states of being is by way of is, are, am, was, were, be, being, and been

Insofar as the to be verb becomes an accomplice in neutralizing active verbs, it’s a writing problem. But if you are using to be to communicate states of being, do so with my blessing.

Consider the sentence, 

     Sidney is five feet tall. 

You could get rid of the to be verb (is) by writing,

     Sidney stands five feet tall. 

That’s a perfectly good way to put it, and I would call it an improvement, though I wouldn’t call it a huge improvement. But what if you’re really serious about using strong verbs? You could write

     Sidney towers five feet tall.

Towers is a strong verb to be sure–much stronger than is or stands. The only problem is that we don’t think of five-footers as towering. We have again traded “strength” for precision.

One last thing about states of being: the to be verb isn’t your only option for communicating a state of being. You can use an adjective, a prepositional phrase, or really any other modifier. 

     At five feet tall, Sidney towers over his fellow kindergarteners.

See what I did there? Sidney’s height ends up in a prepositional phrase (At five feet tall), and I still get to use that nice strong verb, towers.

So, to repeat and to conclude, there’s no shame in using the to be verb to express states of being, and there’s no glory in using strong verbs if they don’t precisely depict the scene you’ve envisioned. Focus on figuring out where the action is, then find the verbs that express that action.

  • Loraine Morrison
    3:56 PM, 16 February 2020

    Thank you!!!

  • Elizabeth Cottrell
    9:12 PM, 4 March 2020

    Glad to see “to be” verbs rescued from blanket demonization!

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