How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words

Big Word Hunting, Part One: What is a Strong Verb?

Have you ever read a novel and been impressed with the originality of the author's use of verbs?  One of the hallmarks of good fiction is the use of strong, original verbs.  Yet how does one go about finding these verbs when our daily lives are most often assaulted with weak variations of "to be" from every angle?  When I read a novel full of good verbs I sigh heavily and lament that I am not a good verb finder.

But of late I have deduced that my inability to find good verbs is a result of laziness.  I hate when that happens and I discover that something I thought was a congenital trait is actually because I am slothful.

Why laziness?  Because it takes more effort to pull out the thesaurus and look up a word then it does to hit Shift F7 and use the lame Word synonym finder.  And because it takes consistent exertion to look for verbs in your daily travels and readings, and most important, when you find them, write them down.  It takes energy to drag yourself out of the rut of using plain, ordinary words and passive verbs.

Perhaps at this point you might be asking, what, exactly is a strong verb?  Let us take a look:

  • All variants of the verb to be are weak verbs.  (Sorry, to be it is a harsh judgment, but it must be said.)  Poor old to be is so over-used that it does not pull up any fresh imagery (or any image at all).  To be is the work horse of the verb world, and work horses age early and get tired and sick and feeble. So send your to bes out to pasture and find some young fresh fillies, or colts if you prefer.
  • Verbs with an ing ending are weak verbs.  Yes, I know, the justification for using the ing ending is that it indicates time passing.  Such as "I was reading while I waited for the train."  However, a simple ed ending accomplishes the same thing in a crisper fashion:  "I read while I waited for the train."  I have a tragic propensity to fall in love with ing endings and so once in awhile, I must whip myself soundly and rid my manuscript of as many of them as possible.  Put those ing endings out in the back 40 with the workhorse to bes, where they can have AARP parties together.
  • Verbs based on nouns are strong verbs.  A fun verb exercise is to sit in a room, look around and start naming every noun you see.  What you'll discover is that many of our most beloved verbs are based on nouns. And in the process of turning nouns into verbs, you might stretch your mind a bit to discover some hot new verbs. 
  • Strong verbs stand alone, on their own two feet.  They don't need helpers like had, or would, or any other words that exist mostly to suck up to the handsome strong verbs.  For instance, "The policeman had run so fast he was out of breath."  How about "The policeman ran so fast he was out of breath," instead?  You get the gist.  Banish the helper verbs.  They can rent the room next to the AARP verbs and hold a wake for themselves.

In part two of this diatribe series on verbs, coming tomorrow, God and goddess willing, we will discuss the wonders of the thesaurus.  Until then, have a look at your current writing project.  What kinds of verbs do you see?

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3 Responses to How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words

  1. Christi Corbett 05/01/2010 at 16:13 #

    Such a great post!

  2. Charlotte Dixon 05/02/2010 at 13:37 #

    Thanks, Christi. I think there must be a lot of people curious about strong verbs because I get a lot of search engine traffic for this post.


  1. Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Three: The Word Book | Charlotte Rains Dixon - 11/03/2015

    […] part one of this series, I talked about strong verbs.  Part two featured a rant essay about the thesaurus.  And […]

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