Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Drop and Give Me Twenty: Whipping Verbs into Shape

Verbs demand attention.  They drive the action in a sentence and push the reader through our ideas.  Unfortunately, many of us feed our verbs Cocoa Puffs and Pixie Sticks when we should be cramming steaks and protein bars down their throat.

"What the heck is this guy talking about?  Verbs and steak?  Heck, I don't even like Cocoa Puffs."

First off, you're crazy.  Chocolate should be deified.  Second, I'm referring to weak verbs in writing, the most frequent of which is our friend "to be."  Writing is already a tough job, and it gets even harder when people expect you to get fancy with it.  Often times, the simplest way to describe something is to display in a static state of being: Noun is adjective.  

Sometimes that works.  But what if you want to include more vivid images or create more engaging text?  If that's the case, consider taking a long, hard look at how you use your verbs.  Instead of using static verbs like "is" or "are," consider putting your subjects in a state of action.

But enough talk.  I'm a big fan of examples.  Check this out:

It is a scientific fact that people named Bob are likely to be cruel.

It's not wrong by any stretch of the imagination.  But let's take a look at the verbs in that sentence:

It is a scientific fact that people named Bob are likely to be cruel.

Woah.  That's a lot of static verbs.  Let's pack some muscle onto these wimps, shall we?

1. "It is a scientific fact" -- That's great.  Why don't we focus on the discovery of this fact?  Or the proof that science has given us?  Plenty of correct alternatives exist, but for now, let's assume the importance was proving this particular hypothesis.  

Here's our sexy alternative phrase: "Science has proven..."  Check out the beef on that one!  Right from the get go, this gives the reader a strong indication of what's coming next.

2. "...people named Bob are likely..."  --  Now this is where things get a little tricky.  Even though "to be" might be a ninety-pound weakling, it exists within the English language for a reason.  If you try to eliminate every instance within your paper, insanity will surely follow.  So what's an aspiring verb buffer-upper to do in this situation?  Check the context.  That brings us to ... 

3. " be cruel."  "Hold the phones," I hear you crying (if you're into outdated, cheesy phrases).  "We didn't finish examining point number two!"  And you're right.  Some phrases, like our first, include hints that give us a good idea of where the sentence is headed.  Others, like number two, could go any number of ways.  It's impossible to change the phrase "are likely" without knowing what comes next.

What if the original sentence had ended as follows: "...people named Bob are likely to die?"  We're still using the infinitive "to die," but that's pretty vivid.  There's no reason to mess with that unless you crave melodrama: "...people named Bob are likely to succumb to the cold, heartless fingers of the Reaper."  

Honestly, there's no reason for that kind of eye-rolling wordiness.  It can work in fiction, but even creative prose has limits on pulpy cheese.  Just ... just don't do that.

When you have a "to be" phrase (such as "are likely") followed immediately by a second "to be" phrase (or in this case, just the words "to be"), there's almost always a stronger verb that will handle both phrases just fine.  For example, in our current situation, the phrase "tend towards" gives your reader the exact same information, and it looks awesome while doing so.

HOWEVER, this usually requires you to adjust your object.  No one says, "tend towards cruel."  That's plan wrong.  Cruel becomes cruelty.  Pay attention to how these verb shifts play with the rest of your sentence.  It's generally pretty easy to tell when you need to make these kinds of adjustments.  Read your phrases out loud if you're unsure.

No, really.  Do it right now.  Say, "tend towards cruel."  It sounds stupid.

So with all that said and done, we're left with a sharper, sexier sentence: 

"Science has proven people named Bob tend towards cruelty."  


As I said before, I'm not suggesting you boycott "to be" verbs.  They can be pretty darn useful sometimes.  Also, some styles of writing may have preferred stylistic methods.  Lab reports, for instance, are often written in passive voice, even though that gives most other instructors an aneurysm.  

In the end, it all comes down to style.  If you're looking for ways to sharpen your imagery and tighten up your sentences, getting tough with your verbs can pack quite a punch.

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