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Posted, Apr. 20, 2004
Updated, Apr. 20, 2004


QuickLink: A62588

Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.

President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was "From Russia With Love," the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. This choice revealed more about JFK than we knew at the time and created a cult of 007 that persists to this day.

The power in Fleming's prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after page, England's favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs the action of the verb.

Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. … He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.

Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his naked body. He looked at his watch. It said two o'clock.

Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.

There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room. A girl's voice said, "Poor Mister Bond. You must be tired. Come to bed."

In writing this passage, Fleming followed the advice of his countryman George Orwell, who wrote of verbs: "Never use the passive when you can use the active."

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Never say never, Mr. Orwell, lest you turn one of the writer's most reliable tools into a rigid rule. But we honor you for describing the relationship between language abuse and political abuse, and for revealing how corrupt leaders use the passive voice to obscure unspeakable truths and shroud responsibility for their actions. They say: "It must be admitted after the report is reviewed that mistakes were made," rather than, "I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake."

News writers reach often for the simple active verb. Consider this New York Times lead by Carlotta Gall on the suicidal desperation of Afghan women: "Waiflike, draped in a pale blue veil, Madina, 20, sits on her hospital bed, bandages covering the terrible, raw burns on her neck and chest. Her hands tremble. She picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set herself on fire with kerosene."

While Fleming used the past tense to narrate his adventure, Gall prefers verbs in the present tense. This strategy immerses the reader in the immediacy of experience, as if we were sitting – right now -- beside the poor woman in her grief.

Both Fleming and Gall avoid the verb qualifiers that attach themselves to standard prose like barnacles to the hull of a ship:

  • Sort of
  • Tend to
  • Kind of
  • Must have
  • Seemed to
  • Could have
  • Use to

Scrape away these crustaceans during revision, and the ship of your prose will glide toward meaning with efficient speed and grace.

Workshop:

  1. Verbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and forms of the verb "to be." Review three of your stories and circle the verb forms with a pencil. In the margins, mark each verb by category.
  2. Look for occasions to convert passive or "to be" verbs into the active. For example, "It was her observation that …" becomes "She observed …"
  3. In your own work and in the newspaper, search for verb attachments and see what happens when you cut them from a story.
  4. Read "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell. As you listen to political speech, mark those occasions when politicians or other leaders use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for problems or mistakes.

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  • Ontological verbs
  • Strongest verb in English language
  • Forbidden Locutions
  • "corrupt leaders use the passive voice"
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