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  • M. Christine Benner Dixon

How to Verb Better

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

I'm not going to tell you to eliminate all your adverbs--adverbs can be powerful little buggers when well applied. I'm not going to sniff at adjectives as merely frivolous or decorative. I'm not going to forbid you from using any form of "to be" in your writing. I can even admit that there is a time and a place for the passive voice in excellent writing. But if you are looking for one easy way to strengthen your writing, start with the verbs.


English privileges its verbs both structurally and logically. There is no such thing as a complete sentence without a verb. In fact, the only grammatically legitimate one-word sentences in English are verbs: "Stop!" "Listen." "Celebrate!" We embed information about the number and identity of actors and when the action takes place into our verbs. A simple shift in verb tense can totally detour a sentence's narrative. Observe: "The poll numbers looked great." vs. "The poll numbers had looked great." With that kind of power in hand, it pays to wield it well.


Imagine that someone reduced your writing to its verbs alone. What would they see? Lots of "is" and "are" and "have been"? Vague, overly general actions like "improve" and "began"? You can do better. Your ideas, clear and definite, should be shaping each element of your writing. Do the thought experiment above with nouns, and you should be left with a series of precise and substantive images, rife with meaningful juxtapositions. A verbs-only reading should flicker action and purpose. Theme, argument, and tone--it's all there in every word choice. Let's look at the Gettysburg Address to illustrate:

  • The nouns: years, fathers, continent, nation, Liberty, proposition, men, war, nation, nation, battle-field, war . . . (Notice how history and ideology sit so close together in Lincoln's writing.)

  • The verbs: brought forth, conceived, dedicated, are created, are engaged, testing, conceived, dedicated, endure, are met, have come, dedicate, gave . . . (Are you getting the idea that "conceiving" and "dedicating" are important here? He returns to those same verbs again, and he gives us more:) struggled, consecrated . . . remember, forget . . . fought, advanced . . . resolve . . .

Lincoln's writing is famously succinct. Part of how he manages to pack so much meaning into so few words is through his use of verbs. The actors in his speech, whether the founding fathers or the memorialized soldiers or the listening audience, do not stand around in a tableau waiting to be described. Their actions are specific, easy to envision. They fight and die, remember and honor, and their ideals "shall not perish from the earth." That's some good verbing!


So when you sit down to write your next speech, essay, story, social media post, proposal, etc., pause for a moment over your verbs. Ask yourself whether your core ideas are reflected in your verbs. Push yourself towards something more vivid, more evocative, more effective.


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© 2019 by Christine Benner Dixon