When it comes to writing, not all words are created equal. This is especially true of verbs. Strong verbs can make your writing more powerful to the reader, while a weak verb can quickly bore a reader and make them think that your writing is subpar or that you lack creativity and imagination. Or worse, conviction. Learning how to replace weak verbs with strong verbs, whether in the past or present, will propel your writing to a state that makes it much more appealing to your audience.
This article will help you learn to use strong verbs in all of their forms and tenses. If you have a strong verb in a sentence, there is often no need for an adverb, which many readers and writers alike loathe. First, before we cover what makes an action word either a weak verb or a strong verb, we should define and briefly discuss the tenses that you may encounter in your writing.
When you write in the past tense, you’re writing about something that has already happened. It has concluded, and the narrator is retelling the events. Past tense writing can be singular so that you’re telling a story as it happened to one person, or it can be past tense plural, meaning that it happened to a group of people.
Past tense writing requires you to change the verbs in the story so that they stay true to the tense and the timeline of the story. For example, you can’t say, “Last week, I went to the grocery store for some milk. They were out of milk, so I grabbed a carton of half and half for my coffee instead.”
In the above example, the past tense is used all the way up to the word “grab,” which is a verb in the present tense. It should have read, “Last week, I went to the grocery store for some milk. They were out of milk, so I grabbed a carton of half and half for my coffee, instead.”
The verbs all have to stick to the same tense in your writing. Otherwise, the writing will confuse the reader. It has to make sense and follow the timeline set up at the beginning of the writing. Switching tenses, especially in the middle of a paragraph, is a definite mistake that writers need to be careful to avoid.
This is also true in past tense plural writing. This is when the story happened in the past, but it happened to a group of people. The verb has to maintain continuity of tense, but it also needs to maintain continuity of number. Observe the following example.
“We went to the park together. It started to rain right after we set up our picnic, so we all runned back to the car and went home.”
Obviously, there is something wrong with the above sentence. The verb should have been “ran” rather than “runned,” which is not a proper word, regardless of the number. Don’t think that you can make any verb past tense simply by adding a “-d” or “-ed” to it. Studying and learning verb forms is crucial to writing.
Present Tense Forms
Present tense describes things that are happening right now or currently. Present tense writing means that you may have to attach words such as “to” to your verbs so that the verbs make sense to the tense the story is being told in. For example, “I am going to sing at church this morning, and I’m very nervous.”
In the above example, the person is talking to you in the present tense. Therefore, the word “to” is placed before the verb “sing” so that it stays consistent with the present tense. Attaching this word in present tense forms continuity and a storyline that doesn’t confuse the audience.
Old English Strong Verb Classes
Old English strong verb classes teach us that there are seven strong verb classes. While there are no definite rules that define what makes a verb a strong verb, it is widely understood that there are less than 200 strong verbs in the English language. Old English established the rules of conjugation, as well as leaning heavily on not only the past form of verbs but on the past participle as well.
In many instances, the past participle is unnecessary in your writing. However, it is always a good idea to have a good understanding of the past participle of any given verb so that you can master writing more easily.
Spellings Change with Verb Tense
Remember that in some cases, the spelling of verbs changes according to verb tense. For example, take the verb “swim.” The word and the spelling will change depending upon the tense of the writing. The present tense is “swim,” the present participle is “swimming,” and the past tense is “swam,” and the past participle is “swum.” If you are unsure which version of a verb should be used at any point in your writing, refer to a verb list or chart so that you don’t make a mistake.
Most of the verbs used so far in examples are usually considered weak verbs. They’re the standard words used to describe an action, but they pack no punch. They simply state an action. For stronger writing, use a strong verb, which often means getting creative to replace a weak verb with a strong one. One that is interesting rather than run of the mill. It will help draw the reader in and submerge them in the content.
Just make sure that you don’t go too overboard in your plight to use a strong verb. Overdoing it so that you have no weak verbs by using grandiose or flowery verbs can make your work too clunky or even ridiculous. There is a balance that needs to be maintained.
Can Modern English Verbs be Strong Verbs?
Modern English verbs contain less than 200 words that are considered strong verbs. A verb is generally considered strong if it has strong verb stems, meaning that the word has to be changed to accommodate tense. A perfect example of this is the verb “run.” Other tense forms of this verb are: rang and rung. Strong verb stems are those whose vowels change for tense.
It is important to note that there are different types of verbs. Action verbs denote actions, such as: run, jump, drive, kiss, dive, stab, and tackle. These are words that tell the reader what the character in a story is doing or has done.
There are also linking verbs, also known as a state of being verbs. These verbs are: am, is, are, was, were, be, am, been. They can also denote the state of things, such as: lie, stand, sit, stand, etc.
Understanding the difference between the verb forms and the tenses and conjugation of verbs can lead you to develop a strong verb system when you go about your writing. Possessing a strong verb system means that you will be able to select powerful verbs to write the stories you want to share with your readers, and stronger verbs mean stronger writing and stronger stories.
Conjugating Strong Verbs
Now that we have discussed what a verb is, the different tenses a verb can have, what makes strong verbs strong, and how to tell weak verbs apart from them, we have to discuss the next step to better writing with verbs: conjugating strong verbs.
You can have some truly impressive power verbs at the ready for your writing, but understanding their modern English forms so that you can have clear and concise writing when you use those verbs is essential to your success as a writer.
To conjugate verbs properly, there are four things that the writer needs to understand. And the same few examples are used as sentences over and over if you take a proper class in modern English.
You need to know the infinitive verb form of a verb. This is a fancy way of saying that you need to know the basic form of the word. The classic example given in many classes of modern English is: Alfred liked to read vernacular books.
In the example, the verb’s infinitive form is “to read.” It is the most basic form of the verb.
Third-Person Singular Past Tense
This is the verb form used in third-person point of view writing when the story is in the past tense. To break this down further, it means that the story’s narrator is not a character but simply acting as an unknown narrator. The story’s events have already occurred, and the narrator is telling the reader about something that already happened to one character. An example of a verb used in this form is: She told her mother goodbye that morning.
In the example, the third person singular past tense verb is “told.”
Past Tense Plural
Past tense plural is the verb form used when the story’s events have already occurred, but it’s the story of more than one person. Therefore the verbs have to be plural and in the past tense. An example of this would be, “They sang sweetly from the choir loft.”
In the example, the past tense plural verb is “sang.”
Past principle is the part of conjugation that is tricky. The classically taught example of this is “Alfred’s tired eyes forced him to stop reading.” In this sentence, the past participle is “tired” because it describes Alfred’s state of being that led to the action of him stopping reading.
Once you have mastered these four types of verbs, you can properly conjugate basically any verb in modern English. Taking a proper class will help you to put this to practice, but it can also be done through practice in your writing process. Complete conjugation of any verb is possible with enough practice.
Why Strong Verbs are Necessary
You might wonder why it matters whether or not you use strong verbs, as long as the reader understands the point of the action. While the reader probably will understand the action to a point, using interesting or more precise and strong verbs will enhance your writing so that the reader can better envision the action being taken in your story.
For example, consider the following paragraph.
Margaret was angry. John was friendly earlier on their date, but now that he was home and didn’t need to impress her anymore, he was unpleasant. He didn’t talk to her. He didn’t look at her. Margaret tried to talk to John, but he didn’t say much. So she gave up and took the keys from the hook in the foyer. She told John that she would not sit around all night bored, so she was leaving. She opened the door and walked out. She got into her car, and she drove away down the street. She decided not to go on any more dates with John.
Does the above paragraph get the gist across to the reader? Probably. The reader probably imagines that a couple went on a date, then went back home, where the boyfriend or husband, John, stopped paying attention to Margaret, which caused her to decide to leave because she felt ignored. However, due to weak imagery and verbs, the audience isn’t getting the feelings that are probably enmeshed in this storyline. There is no mood set by word choice. It’s all sort of bland.
Now, read the following revised paragraph. It has been revised to include more powerful imagery and stronger verbs.
Margaret was fuming. John had been cordial and sincere earlier on their date, but now that he was home and no longer felt the need to woo or impress her, he ignored her entirely. He fell utterly silent, avoiding eye contact, peering into the void rather than at his girlfriend. Margaret attempted conversation, even banter, but John was unresponsive.
Defeated, Margaret snatched the keys from the hook in the foyer, screamed at John that she refused to be treated like an invisible guest, and stormed out the front door. Before John could protest, Margaret had flung her purse into the car, got in, slammed the door, and sped off down the street. She vowed never to waste her time on a date with John again.
When more powerful verbs are used in fiction or narrative writing, the quality of the writing benefits. Imagery is more vivid for the reader, and the verb choice can help set the mood. Don’t make an angry character walk out a door. Have them storm or stomp out the door. Don’t let them drive away, make them speed away, or fly down the road.
It all really boils down to word choice without overdoing it. Just remember that colorful language is good for giving the reader a mental picture of the storyline or plot, but too much distracts the reader. If you learn to use strong verbs in your writing, you have learned to be a better writer.