Friday, August 13, 2010

Using Strong Verbs for Strong Writing

Guest post by Jose M. Blanco

The Problem

Some of our writing becomes weak when we use verbs like "to be" and "to have." These verbs add little to our prose; instead, they inflate our writing and make us sound verbose. Add power to your writing by using strong verbs. The sentence, "The bridegroom walked proudly across the dance floor" sounds so much more compelling if you write, "The bridegroom strutted across the dance floor." In this case we converted a weak verb + adverb combination (walked proudly) to a strong verb (strutted). Although weak verbs serve a useful role as helpers, to improve your writing style, let the majority of your verbs express strength. The Solution Although readers may not notice the problem because there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentences, it still affects how they perceive your writing. Examine the following sentences:

Weaker: The cabinet minister is careful to visit only organizations that have a socially-conscious agenda.

 Stronger: The cabinet minister visits only organizations with a socially-conscious agenda.

Are the sentences identical? No, but the subtle difference in the care with which the minister selects organizations to visit may not warrant the extra four words and the soft "is careful" construction. Unless you mean to emphasize this care, the second sentence conveys the message more strongly than the first. The second sentence is also shorter by four words. Shorter is usually better. Length matters sometimes, but sometimes it doesn't.

Weaker: Marjorie is always early to class.

 Stronger: Marjorie always arrives early to class.

These two sentences use the same number of words, six. However, note how the verb in the second sentence, arrives, sounds more vigorous, describes the act of arriving early, more vigorously than the verb in the first, is, which merely describes a state of being. Beware of the verbs "to be" and "to have." These verbs may hide in the forms listed here. Any time you use one of these verbs (Be, Is, Are, Was, Been, Being, Were, Has, Have, Having, Had) ask yourself if the sentence should be rewritten. To rewrite sentences using strong verbs:

Underline any use of Be, Is, Are, Was, Been, Being, Were, Has, Have, Having, Had. John is the manager of the produce department.

 Look for a noun or adjective that you can convert to a strong verb. John is the manager of the produce department. ("manager," noun - predicate nominative)

 Rewrite the sentence using that strong verb.  John manages the produce department.

Always use good grammar in English when you write, but do not neglect using strong verbs for strong writing and a more robust writing style.

You may have additional questions about using correct English. If you do, please contact me. My name is Jose M. Blanco. I teach English composition, and I have developed worksheets to help students and teachers alike. Please visit my website, for additional resources and contact information.


  1. Something that always bothers me with others writing is when they use the apologetic 'voice'--They are always sorry for their opinion! Using strong verbs can reinforce a stronger voice and dropping the "I'm sorry, but..." too.

    Great post indeed. :)

  2. Thanks Stephanie. I teach my students to avoid expressions like "in my opinion" and "it is my belief that." These expressions weaken an author's credibility. If it's not your opinion, then tell the reader whose opinion it is.


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