Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Use Strong Verbs

Weak verbs are actionless verbs, vague verbs, and verbs in the passive voice. We have already discussed the passive voice, so let's focus on actionless verbs and vague verbs.

Actionless verbs include static verbs, like exist and the various forms of the verb to be. Other actionless verbs include English's infamous cargo of "helping" or "auxiliary" verbs. (See below.) I call them "little verbs." Vague verbs convey little meaning and usually require help to adequately describe the action. For example hit is vague. Slapped, punched, or walloped more vividly and precisely describe the action.

Use a thesaurus to find strong, precise verbs. The time is well spent, because using verbs that carry more meaning eliminates the need for additional words to bolster and modify them

Little Verbs
  • be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been
  • have, has, had, having
  • do, does, did, doing
  • may, might
  • can, could
  • would, will, shall
  • the contracted forms 's, 're, and 've.
Note: In British English will and shall still have different meanings. Through sloppiness in the mass media, this useful nuance has been lost in American English. A word to the wise: shall is rarely used in the U.S. and may even strike an American audience as stilted. Nonetheless, I do rarely use it myself -- when I want to emphasize inevitability rather than volition by the actor. In some contexts the use of the unusal shall conveys that message even to an American audience not used to hearing it.

One good way to achieve conciseness (eliminate wordiness) is to just challenge every instance of these little verbs. Use them only when necessary.

For example, can you change The police had been called to The police were called? If you can, do. Again for example, can you change I have called the police to I called the police? If you can, do. Notice that writing in the active voice eliminates some of these little verbs for you.



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