The ultimate guide to using verbs in your writing. Includes list of 333+ strong verbs.
Sometimes you write something and it just feels … dead.
So you go to work on it, juicing it up with adjectives and adverbs. Trying to put a sparkle into your writing. Only then you take a step back and look again.
And what you have is actually worse. It’s still flat, but somehow trying too hard at the same time. Like playing canned laughter at your own bad party.
So let’s pare back and go back to basics.
Here’s what authors Strunk and White advised in their little writers’ Bible, The Elements of Style:
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
And there are lots of others who agree. Here’s Stephen King:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.”
So what’s the problem that all these authors are getting riled up about? And what’s the fix?
(Oh yes, and I’ve got a list of 300+ strong verbs for you to get your teeth into. If that’s all you want, just scroll on down.)
Weak Verb + Adverb Versus Strong Verb
Take a look at these sentences:
- “No, Thomas,” she said very quietly.
- He ran as quickly as he possibly could to the station.
- She jumped as high as she knew how off the diving platform.
The words in italics are either adverbs or (same basic idea) adverbial phrases. And don’t you feel how cluttered they are? Don’t you feel like there are a lot of words being used there to communicate not so much?
Here’s how we could have done it:
- “No, Thomas,” she whispered.
- He raced to the station.
- She leaped off the diving platform.
Fewer words. No adverbs. And a simple, effective communication. Doing more with less.
And that’s the basic idea about vivid verbs. If you use the right verb, you will communicate more swiftly and effectively than if you choose the wrong one to start with – then try to patch the damage with yet more verbiage.
OK. So that’s a win. But there’s more to explore here – because, yes, there’s another way to go wrong with verbs, and it’s this.
State Of Being Verbs
Take a look at these sentences:
- Jerry was a great believer in the virtues of cold water.
- Jemima was never out of bed before midday.
Notice that both those sentences use a state-of-being verb (in this case, “was”) to link a person with something about that person.
And, OK, there are plenty of times when that’s a perfectly fine approach. None of the issues raised in this blog post are rules; they’re more guidelines, or at least useful things to think about.
But in this case, both sentences could be made better by using a more active verb – a vivid verb – in place of that state of being one. Here’s how those sentences could have gone:
- Jerry believed passionately in the virtues of cold water.
- Jemima lay in bed well beyond midday.
Better right? Jerry is now doing something, not just being something. And in Jemima’s case, we’ve removed that negative / state of being approach, and made a positive statement about her indolence. Both sentences seem somehow more active, more emphatic.
Oh yes: and you probably noticed that, in the sentence about Jerry, I slipped the word passionately in there. That’s optional, but if you want to strengthen the verb, you can. There’s no neat one-word way to say “believed passionately”, so using an adverb there is certainly a legitimate choice.
There Is / There Are
Another perfectly valid construction in English is to start a sentence with “there is” or “there are”. For example:
- There were countless trees in that forest and only one of them …
- There are many opportunities at this company …
Those sentences are not grammatically wrong. You won’t get shot if you use them.
Well, we could do better right? For example:
- Countless trees peopled that forest and only one of them …
- This company offers many opportunities …
In the first case, we’ve got rid of a horrible empty construction (“there were”), we’ve used a good strong verb (“peopled”), and the whole sentence has got better. It feels like that forest is more alive, more exciting. That’s a perfect demonstration of how a good vivid verb can help fix an underpowered sentence.
Same thing with the next sentence too. In the first version, the “company” features only as an afterthought. In the second version, it is actively offering something – it’s the subject of its own sentence and its generosity seems now like a positive act. And note the role of the verb here. The act of generosity is encapsulated in that verb, “offers”. We’ve killed a weak verb, added a vivid one – and our sentence has improved.
Better right? And so damn easy.
Passive Verbs Vs Active Verbs
Let’s take a look at two more sentences.
- The cake was made by my grandma.
- The fender was bent out of shape by a fallen branch.
And yes: you spotted the issue there. In both cases, the sentences use the passive voice, not the active voice. So the person who actually made the cake was grandma. The thing that actually bent that fender was that damn branch. (Need more help remembering the difference between active versus passive? Check out this easy guide.)
So in effect, both sentences shoved the real subject to the back of the sentence, almost as though shoving them out of sight. Here’s how to rewrite those sentences and make them better:
- My grandma made the cake.
- A fallen branch bent the fender. (Yes, you could say “out of shape” but doesn’t the word bent already convey exactly that? I think it does.)
But again, I want to remind you that we’re dealing with guidelines not rules here. Which of these is better:
- Detective Jonas arrested and charged the suspect.
- The suspect was arrested and charged.
The first sentence is all about the admirable Detective Jonas. But what if we don’t care about him? What if this story is all about the suspect, and what happens to him? In that case, the second sentence is better. In fact, the use of the passive voice here almost emphasises the suspect’s powerlessness.
Sometimes Weak Verbs Are Ok
And while we’re on the issue of judgement, let’s just remember that sometimes weak verbs are really OK.
For example, you can’t get a much blander verb than say / said. So you might think that your dialogue should be littered with words like trumpeted, shouted, asserted, called, whispered, muttered, declaimed, hollered, and so on.
But can you imagine how ridiculous that would get how quickly? And what do you want people to pay attention to? The dialogue itself, or your comments about it?
There’s no contest.
In other words: weak / dull / lifeless verbs are fine when you don’t especially want to call attention to that part of your writing. Let the dialogue shine. The rest of it can just go quietly about its job.