Charge up your writing with vibrant verbs

Ditch the stodgy ‘to be,’ and shift your text into high gear.


I was forced to diagram sentences when I was in high school—bet you young’uns don’t even know what that means—and found it tedious and confusing. The only thing that stuck with me was the definition of a verb as “the action word of the sentence.” It wasn’t until I became a professional writer that I actually cared.

If you care about anything in your writing, care about your verbs. They drive the sentence. Pick the right verb to help your reader zoom along. Watch carefully for offbeat or unusual verbs in your reading, and record them in a notebook or electronic file. Here’s a favorite: “The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park.” A crowd cascading—and being swallowed by a park—isn’t that terrific imagery?

You should work up a sweat to avoid boring “state of being” verbs (any form of “to be”) and instead zero in on verbs with zip or pizzazz: dither, inspect, disdain. Precision helps. After all, sauntering differs from walking or striding. Be specific, and you’ll create a sharper picture in your reader’s mind.

Further, attend to your tenses. If the verb is an automobile, the simple present tense (I eat, you ingest, he chews) is a Corvette. Sleek, with a powerful engine, it goes from zero to 60 in five seconds. Prefer it to the less streamlined present progressive (I am eating). Though this form shows ongoing activity, it can easily gum up your sentence. Most times you don’t need it. Edit down to the simple.

Here’s another tip, beloved of journalists and magazine writers: Take that story or anecdote that seems to belong in the past tense, because it’s something that has already happened, and simply position it in the present. For example: “George McDonald smiled when he heard the news” becomes “George McDonald smiles when he hears the news.” See how that transforms the sentence? Just remember to be consistent. Don’t shift from one tense to another if the time frame of the story remains the same.

Beware a tense known as the future unreal conditional. (Even the name sounds alarming.) The dead giveaway of this tense is the word “would.” Here’s an example: “The vice president would sit at the boardroom table chastising his employees.” The trouble is, “would” signals this to be an apocryphal or imaginary story. Ditch it. Tell real stories instead.

I hope that wasn’t as dull as the grammar classes I endured as a child. No scary terms, no funny lines to draw. Just a focus on action, action, action.

Class dismissed.

Bonus laugh for anyone over 50: Here is humorist Dave Barry’s explanation of how to diagram a sentence:

First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the “predicate,” which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: “LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger,” the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

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