Thursday, July 16, 2009

Write Powerfully With Verbs!

If you've ever thought that something you needed to read was total drudgery, perhaps it lacked effective verbs*. Verbs constitute, arguably, the most important words in a sentence, and without powerful, precise verb choices, prose feels pallid, wimpy, and dull to read. Use meaningful verbs! Then, construct your sentences using the verbs actively, and you will keep your reader's attention even more completely.

*Or alternatively, perhaps it was Moby Dick. If so, you have my deepest sympathies.

"To be" or not "to be"
As you check the last draft of something to present or turn in for review, take ten minutes to skim it for words such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had. These words originate from two verb infinitives, "to be" and "to have." Though the occasional "is" may be exactly what you need as you make a statement, we tend to overuse it. Similarly over-used, "have" creates the same problems. At times, you need one of these words in a verb phrase as a helping verb, such as "is winning" or "has tried," but if that word stands alone as the verb in that part of the sentence, revise the sentence. It can require you to rearrange the order a bit, but the effort will pay off.

Read the following passage:

I am from Buffalo, and I was sixteen the first time I ever left New York state. We were in the car one day when I had a realization that I will only have one life, and this is it. I was certain that the most important thing I have is the will to improve my options by becoming a college student. Now I am a senior at Podunk University.

Aside from some repetitive language, the main problem with these sentences is their lack of precision and conciseness. Not only "to be" and "to have" forms water it down, but a "verbish" thing, a gerund, "becoming," is also nearly as weak as "to be." So another verb to keep out of your writing as often as possible is "to become." But what do you write instead? you ask.

From Buffalo, I left New York state for the first time at age sixteen. While riding in the car one day, I realized that I only have this one life, and that I wanted to improve my options by going to college. Now I attend Podunk University and will graduate this year.

With the exception of one "have," stronger verbs replace the weak ones. This sentence reads as bolder and more action-oriented. You may wonder about those "verbish" sounding words, actually called "verbals," such as "riding," in this latter version. These are, as mentioned before, not actual verbs, but ones whose form changed to serve in other parts of speech. They are either participial, gerund, or infinitive. When even the verbals come from strong verb sources, this adds additional power to your phrasing.

Active and Passive Voice
The typical sentence pattern in English is Subject followed by Verb, followed by Direct Object or other material; this leads to active voice, in which the subject is easily identified. For some situations, people tend to reverse or otherwise mess with this order to be vague about the identity of the subject. This can lead to passive voice. For example, let's say that Klezmer kicks the dog. His mother comes in after hearing the yelp, and says, "What happened?" If Klezzie answers, "The dog got kicked," he may stay out of trouble.

Realistically, we have incorporated a great deal of passive voice into our cultural language, particularly in the governmental and political realms, and for much the same reason as Klezmer used it. We all recognize the "Mistakes were made" model for avoiding responsibility. Look carefully at this sentence--its order is reversed, and then some.

"Mistakes" is actually the direct object of the verb "were made." AND THERE IS NO SUBJECT IN THE SENTENCE AT ALL! Clearly no one is to blame. The dog situation echoes this. Mom now knows that Buffy received the action of kicking but there is no do-er in the statement to put into a good, long time-out.

A second form of passive voice includes the agent of action (often vaguely described) but puts it after the verb in a "by" construction: "Mistakes were made by my staff." "The dog was kicked by a little boy." Even then, we see demonstrated some effort to cloud perceptions, but--more important for our purposes--stylistically, the sentence galumphs along, and the out-of-order syntax jars the reader.

Admittedly, there are certain occasions when avoiding passive voice renders an idea ridiculous, and when, therefore, using passive voice suffices. Even so, assume that you need to use active voice, S + V + DO (etc.), because you probably do!

*%#! Expletives Lead to Missing Subjects too
In English we use a few constructions called "expletives." These are not words that should be erased from top-secret taped conversations, but rather set-ups that allow general ideas' expression. The two most common are "There is/are" or "It is," and their past tense forms. Here is such a sentence:

There are a number of ways to skin a cat, but the method I use most frequently is much like that for skinning rabbits; moreover, it is important to make sure that the knife is sharp.

Note that the resulting abomination--ah, I mean, creation--also leads to an "is" verb; it is quite wordy too. But alas, another Writing Wizards blogpost will have to address that.

So, to recap, nearly always, your writing will convey your ideas directly and effectively when you start with the actual subject and then use the verb. Use strong verb choices in sentence patterns that include the agent of action before its verb/action. Your writing will improve, and you will find yourself standing just a little taller.

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