“Verbs Have Broad Shoulders”
Verbs seem easy. Any writer can come up with a verb. However, a thoughtful writer crosses out many verbs before the right one comes along—and often a writer feels there is a better verb out there, a perfect verb. A good verb helps your reader see and feel the action. In argumentative writing, a strong verb often drives home your point or reveals how passionate you are about your subject in ways that a phrase cannot.
To put it simply: verbs are the strongest part of speech, they have broad shoulders, they can carry the weight of any sentence if you let them, and when your verbs improve, your sentences improve—immediately.
Try this sentence: “She walked into the room.” Nothing wrong with the sentence itself; it has a subject, a predicate, it makes sense, it is a complete sentence. But, it really tells us very little.
First, let’s give her a name. Now, you replace the verb “walked” with as many alternatives as you can.
Each of those improved verbs—and you could certainly add to the list—tells you something about the subject without having to use adjectives, description, or—most importantly—adverbs. If verbs are the strongest part of speech, adverbs are the weakest.
A weak verb, such as walked, coupled with an adverb (quickly, clumsily, slowly, happily, etc.) doesn’t become a stronger verb like the ones in the long list you created.
In his bestseller, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wrote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day, fifty the day after that, and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s…too late.”
Or take this old adage which applies to adverbs: “You can put a silk dress on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Use strong verbs and avoid dressing up those weak verbs in a silk dress by adding an adverb.
For fun, see if you can come up with some strong verbs (no pigs) for the following sentences. You do not have to rewrite the entire sentences; just use the sentence numbers and make a list of your verb suggestions.
As the heavy rain began, I __________________ into my tent and _________________ there the rest of the night.
I called the police and ____________________ them to __________________ because a strange person was ______________________ around my house.
When the singer ______________________ the high note, I _____________________ my ears because I didn’t want my eardrums to ________________________.
We ___________________ through the old trunk until we ___________________ the letters, _____________________ them out and _____________________ them so we could ______________________ our ancestor’s Civil War record.
I _____________________ through my homework so I could ___________________ out into the sunshine and _____________________ the rest of the day.
Verbs can improve sentences in other ways. Consider these before and after examples:
Before: I was a manager of a group of six people.
After: I managed a six-person group.
Before: She was responsible for collecting all the data for the school project.
After: She collected all the school project data.
Before: He was a strong king.
After: He emerged a strong king.
When you are editing your own essays and those of your group members, try going through the composition and focusing only on verbs, making changes on your own paper and suggestions for your peers. You’ll be surprised at how much your writing improves just by working on verb choice.
Verbs can also change the mood of a piece of writing. Consider the following paragraph and describe the mood in creates in the reader:
We arrived at the lake mid-morning and piled out of the van to unload our gear and canoes. The ramp to the water’s edge sloped beneath heavy foliage and invited us to tip our toes in the cool shade. The lake surface sparkled in the sunlight like spilled diamonds, and the breeze rippled the surface between us and our campsite on the other side. We would have to launch our canoes and paddle over as soon as possible to give us plenty of time to pitch tents, build a fire, and cook dinner before night settled in around us.
In your breakout room, change only the verbs (all italicized) in the above paragraph to turn the tale into a horror story.
Here are some verbs especially useful in argumentative writing:
distinguish refute expose exist
inquire accomplish represent express
resemble symbolize influence regard
reflect contradict value process
transform analyze undergo impact
preserve suffer struggle personify
eradicate abolish embody convey
exhibit demand believe presume
impress emerge evoke portray
display develop claim argue
evolve encourage reveal define
incorporate achieve delegate administer
streamline operate create tackle
persuade expedite project consolidate
supervise maintain prioritize upgrade
launch promote overcome deliver
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