Category Archives: verb choice

What is a strong verb?

The surest way to improve writing is to write strong verbs.  But what are they?

  • verbs which show specific actions
  • verbs with one unambiguous meaning
  • verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin
  • verbs of one or two syllables
  • verbs stated in the active voice

The surest way to weaken writing is to write weak verbs.  What are they?

  • linking verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
  • verbs with multiple meanings
  • verbs with general, nonspecific meanings
  • three-, four-, and five-syllable verbs of Latin origin
  • verbs stated in the passive voice

Take the quiz to see if you can spot the strong verb.

1a.  The Senator waited for the election returns.
1b.  The Senator sweated out the election returns.
1c.  The Senator listened for the election returns.

2a.  Grandma looked peaceful sleeping in her rocker.
2b.  Grandma slept in her rocker.
2c.  Grandma giggled while sleeping in her rocker.

3a.  The toddler squealed while opening his gift.
3b.  The toddler was excited while opening his gift.
3c.  The toddler cried out while opening his gift.

4a.  The coffee burned my tongue.
4b.  The coffee scalded my tongue.
4c.  The coffee hurt my tongue.

5a.  I was startled when the cat appeared.
5b.  I was surprised when the cat appeared.
5c.  I leapt when the cat appeared.

Answers:

1b.  “Sweated out” is more specific.

2c.  “Giggled” is an action.

3c.  “Squealed” is more specific.

4b.  “Scalded is more specific.

5c.  “Leapt” is an active voice verb.

 

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

How to write more gut-wrenching words

If you want a gut-wrenching reaction from your readers, replace words with many syllables.  Instead, use single-syllable words.  And change long  nouns and adjectives into verbs.

girl writing and thinkingUse short, pithy words that have peppered English for centuries rather than words derived from French or Latin to arouse the greatest response.  Words with many syllables tend to be intellectual words, not emotional words.  For emotion, choose blunt words.  But be careful to check for tone and meaning.  Old words can have many meanings and many connotations.

Here are some examples.  Replace each of the boldfaced words with one of the suggestions.  Then ask yourself:  Does the meaning change?  Does the emotion?

1.  As the lion approached, I felt trepidation.  (fear, quaking, shivers, creeps, chills, a cold sweat)  Now take out “felt” and create a new verb from one of the suggestions.  (quaked, shivered, sweated)  Which grabs you?

2.  My insatiable brother ate both drumsticks from the turkey.  (greedy, gobbling, piggish, hoggish, swinish)  Now replace “ate” with a specific verb.  (gobbled, devoured, downed, dispatched, wolfed down)  Notice how replacing the verb gives a stronger visual image than replacing the adjective?

3.  Before the audition, the dancer’s legs fidgeted.  (jerked, itched, twitched)

4.  The corpulent passenger could not fit into the airline seat.  (fat, obese, fleshy, stout, portly, pudgy, plump, chubby)  Now replace “fit” with a more specific verb.  (compress, squish, squeeze, crush)

5.  The color of the girl’s eyes captivated the photographer.  (charmed, ensnared, bewitched)

Long words are not only harder to read, but they lessen the emotional impact.  If you want to appeal to emotions, use short Anglo-Saxon words.

 

How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.