How to Use Exact Verbs
Style guide authors from Strunk and White in "The Elements of Style" to Stanley Fish in "How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One)" have excoriated writers for the use of vague language. One way to increase the clarity of your writing is to eliminate your use of inexact verbs. To use exact verbs, you will need to utilize active verbs when possible and use linking verbs (is, are, was, were) only when absolutely necessary.
Avoid the constructions "there is," "there are," "there was" and "there were." These inexact phrases merely establish that something exists. Active verb constructions, on the other hand, can accomplish this in addition to telling your reader what something does. To revise a sentence framed around "there is" and similar constructions, it is often necessary to select a different subject for your sentence. For example, instead of writing "There is opposition to the bill in the Senate," write "Republicans in the Senate oppose the bill."
Replace combinations of linking verbs and adjectives with single active verbs. Many sentences become unnecessarily wordy when writers choose to express their meanings using a combination of linking verbs and adjectives rather than with active verbs alone. You can often replace your linking verb and adjective pair with a single active verb that conveys the same positive or negative connotations you intended, albeit, in a more concise fashion. For example, instead of writing, "This is good according to him," write "This pleases him."
Find specific, arresting active verbs to replace generic or stale ones. For example:
Instead of "The journalist says bad things about his enemies," write "The journalist fustigates his enemies." Fustigate means "to cudgel or beat."
Instead of "They kept the results," write "They mewed the results." Mew means "to shut away, confine, enclose; to hide, conceal."
In both cases, the use of an exact verb results in more expressive and interesting language.
Pay attention to the connotations of specific verbs. Guffaw and chuckle, for instance, both generally mean "to laugh," but you should note that their specific meanings are quite different. To "guffaw" means "to laugh loudly or boisterously; to laugh coarsely or harshly," while to "chuckle" means "to laugh in a suppressed manner; to laugh to oneself; to make or show inarticulate signs of exultation or triumph."
- "The Elements of Style"; William Strunk and E.B. White; 2000
- "How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One)"; Stanley Fish; 2011
- "The Oxford English Dictionary"; Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary; 1989
Thomas Colbyry is a writer living in Marquette, Mich. Currently pursuing a B.A. in English, he works as a writing tutor and contributes book reviews to several publications. Colbyry often covers topics related to literature, specializing in early modern, Restoration, 18th-century and Victorian British literature, as well as the literature of Japan.