Precise Language and Strong vs. Weak Verbs in Writing
Forcible writing is prose that features precise language and uses strong verbs. This makes your work strong, straightforward and confident. In 1918, Cornell University professor William Strunk Jr. used these terms in his now famous style guide, “The Elements of Style.” Using precise language and strong verbs, while avoiding weak verbs, makes your writing cleaning, accurate and conciseness.
When you write, use definite, specific, concrete language, according to “The Elements of Style.” If your writing is general, vague or abstract, then it loses some of its grandeur. Yet you do not want superfluous writing. A sentence should contain no extra words, and a paragraph should contain no extra sentences. This does not mean that all your sentences should be short; instead, focus on making every word count. Plan to revise your writing. This helps you spot any weaknesses or flaws in your work.
As you write, focus first on your nouns and verbs instead of using adjectives and adverbs. There is not a strong enough adverb to save a weak or inaccurate noun. Solid verb choices are what give good writing its color and precise language. A strong verb is one that exhibits a specific action and keeps your writing active, not passive. An example of a sentence with a strong verb is, “The running back streaked past his opponents.”
The verbs "to be" and "to have" are weak verbs because they take no action. When your verb does not do anything, it leaves your readers having to work harder to determine your meaning. Examples of phrases to eliminate from your work include "this has," "there is," "there are" and "it was." One way to eliminate weak verbs from your writing is to reread your work and circle every “to be” verb. With some minor restructuring, you can often improve the quality of your sentence by replacing that verb with a strong verb that describes an action.
An example of a weak sentence is,
“The robber’s entry into the house was quiet.”
To make this sentence stronger, restructure it to say,
“The robber sneaked into the house.”
When a sentence uses the verb “to be” to create the past tense, this puts the sentence into passive voice. Passive voice is a weak sentence construction and makes your writing less forcible. Passive voice tells what is being done to the noun instead of telling what the noun is doing.
An example of a sentence in passive voice is,
“The carrot was eaten by the girl.”
According to “The Elements of Style,” use a transitive in the active voice to make your sentence livelier. One way to turn the above example into a sentence with active voice is,
“The girl ate the carrot.”
- The Elements of Style (illustrated); William Strunk; E. B. White, Maira Kalman
- Finnish Virtual University: Overuse of Weak Verbs "To Be," "There Is" Or "Have"
- University of Houston Clear Lake: Using Strong Verbs
- Webster's New World Pocket Style Guide; John A. Haslem
- Instructor's Notes The Everyday Writer (Fourth Edition); Andrea A. Lunsford
- Anne Arundel Community College: Keep Your Verbs Active
Fitzalan Gorman has more than 10 years of academic and commercial experience in research and writing. She has written speeches and text for CEOs, company presidents and leaders of major nonprofit organizations. Gorman has published for professional cycling teams and various health and fitness websites. She has a Master of Arts from Virginia Tech in political science and is a NASM certified personal trainer.