Tag Archives: replace vague verbs with specific ones

Use the word “said” instead of one of its many synonyms

Using the most specific vocabulary word usually is good advice in writing, but there is one exception: the word “said.”

Told, stated, remarked, revealed, whispered, shouted, spoke—the list of substitutes is practically endless. But most of the time, “said” is the best option.

When you write, “He said,” you are informing that a person spoke, but you are not informing how he spoke, so the focus goes on the words he said aloud. In the sentence, “Jack said, ‘I am soaking wet from that rain,’” the focus is on what Jack said aloud, as it should be. In the sentence, “Jack hollered, ‘I am soaking wet from that rain,’” the focus is split. Part of the focus is on what words Jack said aloud, and part is on his manner of speech—a holler.

We are so used to reading the word “said” that it virtually disappears, much like the article, “a.” That is what we want. We need to let our readers know who is speaking, but usually the manner of speech is not important. By using any word other than “said,” attention is drawn away from what is said to how it is said, which we don’t want.

A good rule of thumb is to use “said” if you want your reader to focus on the words which were said aloud. However, if you want your reader to focus on the manner of speaking, then use another word. But do so sparingly.  Click on the listing (graphic) below for a larger version.

synonyms for said

Synonyms for the word “said” as compiled by http://www.synonyms-antonyms.com

How to write well, according to Swain

If you could boil down how to write well into just a few ideas, what would they be?

How about

  • Choose vivid, specific words, words that excite our senses. Avoid generalities by using concrete words that create pictures in the readers’ minds. If you write about groups of people, focus on an individual.
  • Choose active verbs, verbs that put action into those vivid pictures. Avoid the verb “to be.” Use the simple past tense whenever you can, not past progressive or the perfect tenses.
  • Rarely use adverbs. Instead, through action show what the adverb suggests.  If you must use an adverb, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence for the most impact.
  • Vary your sentence structures. Use long sentences, short sentences; simple, compound and complex sentences; sentences that start with prepositional phrases, dependent clauses and gerunds; and sentences that aren’t sentences at all.
  • Don’t try to cram too much information into a single sentence.
  • If you repeat words, repeat enough times and close enough together so those words create impact.
  • Concise is better than verbose.
  • And most important of all, write clearly. The reader should “get it” the first read.

These suggestions come from a single chapter in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, 1965.

How to replace is, are, am, was, were, be, been and to be.

The hardest skill students learn is how to replace the verb “to be.”  Yet is it the single most important skill for improving the verbs in their writing.

The problem is that the verb “to be” rarely has strong synonyms.
As a linking verb it can sometimes be replaced with another linking verb.  “He is sick” can become “He looks sick” or “He feels sick” or “He seems sick.”  But none of those replacements is much stronger than the original verb, “is.”

Change common verbs to more expressive verbs.

An excerpt of a third grader’s revised essay.

Even harder is when the verb identifies something that exists.  How do you restate, “That dog is mine.”  “That dog was mine,” changes just the verb tense; it is the same verb.  “That dog becomes mine,” changes the meaning.

What I tell my students is that usually they will need to replace not just the verb, but the whole sentence.  I ask them to tell me what the sentence means, using other words.  For the sentence, “He is sick,” I ask how they know he is sick.  What does he look like that would let me know he is sick?  They might say, “His face is red and he has a fever.”  I might say, “That’s good, but you are still using the word is.  How can you tell me that his face is red and that he has a fever without using the word ‘is’”?  Usually they are stumped, so I offer suggestions.  “His mother placed an ice bag on his flushed forehead.”  Or, “’Wow!  101 degrees,’ said his mother shaking the thermometer.”   Or, “The feverish boy lay down on the cold tile floor, moving every few seconds to chill his hot body.”

The trick is to let the reader see, hear, touch, smell or taste (usually see) what the writer saw in his mind before he wrote, “He is sick.”  “He is sick” is a conclusion based on certain facts.  What are the facts that led the writer to conclude that “He is sick”? Those facts are what the reader needs to know so that the reader can come to his own conclusion that “He is sick.”

We’ll have more blogs on changing the verb “to be” in the future because it is such a vital part of improving writing, yet such a difficult skill to master.  For now, we’ll move on to the next blog about sentence beginnings.

How to replace weak verbs with strong ones

Excerpt from a student's paper showing revised verbs.

Click on the picture for an enlarged version.

Replacing weak verbs with strong, specific ones is the key to good writing.  When new writing students begin with me, I work one-on-one with the students on this skill over and over to be sure they understand its significance and how to do it.

First, the student identifies the verbs used in the piece of writing, and lists them with tally marks to show how often the student used them.  To revise, we start with some easy words to replace, such as get, go, do, make and take.  The verbs are already encircled with color in the essay, so it is easy to find one of those words.  The student reads the sentence aloud, and I ask if he can think of any word to replace the weak verb.

In the sentence, “I go to JFK Elementary School,” for example, the student ponders the word “go.”  “I take classes in,” he might suggest.  With more prodding he might say, “I study in.”  I might accept that in a third grader, or I might suggest the word “attend” for an older student.  He crosses out the word “go,” and writes “study” or “attend” in the space above the crossed out word.  Then we move on to the next word.

In every revising lesson, I ask the students to use a thesaurus.  Many students have not used a thesaurus (or dictionary) before (except online), so this becomes a mini lesson on how to use those resources.  For the sentence, “I gave the dog a bath,” the student needs to know that a verb is always listed in the present tense, so the word to look up is give, not gave.  I explain that because “give” is so general, there are many meanings listed.  The student cannot pick any one.  He needs to choose a meaning that works for the sentence.  Sometimes we discuss which word works best based on many factors such as the child’s age, his grasp of vocabulary and the degree of formality of the writing.

Rarely does the student replace every weak verb.  Since I am teaching the student a process, nailing each verb is not my goal.  Learning that weak verbs should be replaced, and knowing how to replace them, is.

The hardest verb to replace is the verb “to be.”  We will talk about that in the next blog.

To revise, replace weak or overused verbs with strong, specific verbs.

overused verbs list

When revising, I ask students to encircle each main verb (not helping verbs).  Then, on a separate paper, students make a list of the verbs, using tally marks to show how many times each verb is used.  Usually I help them to write the first list.  Present, past, future—all forms of a verb are treated as the same verb.  Many students are not aware that “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” and “been” are the same verb, so I often write those words together at the top of the paper, as well as “have,” “has” and “had”; “do,” “does,” “did;” “go” and “went.”

After the list with its tally marks is complete, I review the first draft, looking for verbs the student has not found.  Younger students sometimes don’t know what verbs are, so this is a learning experience for them.  Older students often miss identifying the verb “to be.”  I encourage independence, but I step in when the student doesn’t know what to do.

With the students looking at their completed list of verbs, I ask, “What do you notice?”  I hope they say something like, “Well, I used an awful lot of get and got, and also is and are.”  The point is for the students to recognize that they have overused some verbs.

How many is too many?  In a typical piece of student writing of two, three or four double spaced pages, three or more uses of the same verb is too many for my purposes, but there are exceptions.

  • I point out that we are stuck with repeating some verbs which haven’t many synonyms. “Play” is such a verb.  How do you say, “I play the piano” or “I play soccer” without using the word play?
  • Other weak verbs should be replaced even if there is only one of them. “Get,” “take,” “make,” “come,” “go,” “have,” and “do” are vague in meaning and can usually be replaced with more specific verbs.
  • When a verb is used as part of an idiom, it can be hard to replace, and I often allow such verbs for younger children. For older kids, I ask if there is another way to say the thought without using an idiom.

Now comes the most important work of revising:  replacing weak verbs with strong ones.  More on that in the next blog.