Word & Grammar: Verbs


Strong Verbs

Schoolhouse Rock, the 70's Saturday-morning mainstay that stuck around well into the 90's when I saw it, depicts the verb as a superhero, batting, boating, and plowing his way through an action movie.  

If you need action, verb's your word.   

The problem comes when you try to pluck the perfect verb out of your brain at short notice and suddenly you're asking yourself 'do I know any verbs over than is, was, or are?' Or do you find yourself using a weak verb over and over? Using it in every other sentence. Using it three times in a row?  Even using it for the thousandth time in the same paragraph, until your use overflows into overuse and you become a user?

The time has come to flex your verbal muscles and turn those mental dirt roads into four-lane highways.

A wordsmith must manage words the way an army general manages troops—with ultimate precision, always keeping an eye on the target.

The first step is to grow your at-hand vocabulary. Reaching for those verbs is much easier when they live in your mind and not the dictionary. No, don’t go memorizing the OED or Roget’s. These can be grouped by general purpose, theme, or even verbs relating to a particular character.

 This exercise ensures that you choose the best, most precise, most nuanced word possible in order to build the exact picture you want your reader to see.

Build your lists, say the words aloud; visualize each action, shift between similar words to internalize the difference.

rumble swoop burn flow
crack sweep fry trickle
mound zoom melt sprinkle
rock blow cremate wash
kneel careen swoop stroll
creep speed sweep ramble
sneak turn float saunter
edge bounce hover skip
clap drag burn droop
dance meander tick bend
leapfrog tilt snap shiver
twirl sag cut gasp

The listing exercise is especially good if you have a particular theme or character parallel you wish to convey. For example, say your character’s arc involves going from an enslaved state to freedom. The verbs you choose can be a subtle way to illustrate this arc. You could start with “heavier” verbs and move towards lighter ones. Or like a leitmotif in music, introduce “lighter” or “heavier” verbs with specific characters. This shouldn’t be over-obvious, though. Use this technique with a light hand.

Picture Puzzles

Gather together a group of five photos or lifestyle ads. For week one, think of 10 verbs to associate with the first image. Really look at the photo and try to be creative. The next day, look at the same picture and think of different verbs without repeating the ones from any of the days before. Do this for a week

Compare the verbs on day one to the verbs on day seven. Make a separate list of the most accurate and tape it to the image.

Repeat with each of the five images.

* A note on the static. 

Static verbs have their proper place. They lend permanence to a sentence. They tell you what is, what was, and what will be in terse tone. Static verbs do not move. They are the constant; the ever present and they can build breathtaking sentences.