We use weak verbs constantly when we speak (except for enchanting verbal storytellers), and this is a habit we try to break in writing. To create strong, vivid sentences, you must avoid weak verbs.
Weak and strong verbs have two definitions. The first being grammatical in nature and referring to regular and irregular verbs. However, this is not the definition you want to use when editing. In editing, you want to use the aesthetic definition, which deals with imagery and flow. A grammatically weak verb can be a strong verb aesthetically. Classroom has some great examples of this relating to poetry (and all tips in poetry can be applied to longer writing forms).
An aesthetically strong verb (sometimes called a power verb ) is visual and impactful. It adds to the imagery of a sentence and strengthens the flow of the sentence. It’s dynamic. These strong verbs tend to be active, concrete verbs.
An aesthetically weak verb does the opposite. Its imagery is weak, feeble, and inadequate. Often they are verbs that aren’t descriptive or require a modifier as a crutch.
How can I tell if a verb is aesthetically weak?
Weak verbs tend to have at least one of three common characteristics.
The first is that weak verbs like to bury themselves in passive language. While passive voice can enhance meaning or contain aesthetically strong verbs, usually it is not the case. Exceptions are when passive voice is purposeful and has
A weak verb also often requires a modifier to liven it up. This modifier is usually an adverb. While not all adverbs (or modifiers) are bad, adverbs that modify a weak verb signify that the adverb and verb need to be replaced with a stronger verb.
A weak verb can also be a common or general verb. Common verbs, such as came or walked, don’t need an adverb, but they aren’t dynamic, either.
There are a few tricks you can use to help you identify and revise weak verbs depending on their common characteristics.
Trick 1: Adverbs
The first trick is to identify adverbs. Adverbs (modifiers-this can apply to adjectives as well) are often used as a crutch in a sentence and modify weak verbs.
A common saying is to remove all –ly words and you’re done. However, this is untrue. Sometimes, adverbs are necessary, and not all adverbs end in –ly. While searching for –ly is a handy trick, it won’t solve your weak verb problems.
Instead, identify adverbs as you analyze each sentence and ask what the purpose of the adverb is. Why is it being used? Is it enhancing an aesthetically weak verb? If yes, find a better verb. A stronger one that enhances the sentence and language and combines the meaning of both the adverb and the verb. If the adverb is not enhancing a weak verb, is the verb doing its job by itself? If yes, then remove the adverb and trust the verb to do its job.
I looked closely at the footprints.
Adverb: closely. It’s modifying a weak verb. Consider instead:
I studied the footprints.
I scrutinized the footprints.
He crept slowly.
The adverb is not modifying a weak verb, so remove slowly because crept does the job by itself. In fact, slowly is part of the definition of
Personally, I still like to do a final navigation sweep of –ly, but that’s only after I identify adverbs as part of my editing read through. Other non-adverb –ly words still act as unnecessary modifiers, such as pointless or excessive adjectives.
The following is a list of
Trick 2: Passive Voice
The second trick to identifying aesthetically weak verbs is to identify passive voice. As a note of warning, not all passive voice is wrong, just like not all adverbs or common verbs are wrong. This means you should not sweep the manuscript and remove all passive language. However, many times passive voice indicates that the verb or verb tense is weak and needs revision.
Passive voice is a tool in the writer’s toolbox. It’s a matter of style. Passive voice, like any other verb or sentence, should be purposeful and intended. There needs to be a reason to use it, such as shifting emphases or beating around the bush. Grammarly has a great explanation of passive voice and when it’s effective to use it on their blog.
If the passive voice is being used incorrectly or is ineffective, then it needs revision. This provides you with the opportunity to enhance the sentence with stronger, more dynamic verbs.
Trick 3: General or Common Verbs
As mentioned earlier, not all weak verbs have modifiers or have passive voice. Some are general or common verbs we use in everyday language. The third trick is to identify common verbs that aren’t unique or impactful and replace them with stronger verbs that are more dynamic and active.
Consider this sentence:
“He came into the police station.”
Verb: came. Came isn’t a terrible verb, but it isn’t visual or dynamic. Someone may add a modifier to the end of the sentence or near the verb to spruce it up, such as:
“He came into the police station huffing”
“He came into the police station slowly.”
However, these revisions don’t fix the weak verb. By changing the verb to something stronger, the sentence livens.
“He strutted into the police station.”
Other verbs, such as
I’m not saying that you want to open a thesaurus and replace every common verb. The thesaurus can be a great friend and tool, but it should be used wisely. Strong verbs do not mean finding the most unique and outlandish verb. A reader will grow just as frustrated with a text full of weak verbs as they will a text full of rare or complex verbs they have to look up in the dictionary to visualize a scene. Pacing is important, and words you purposely use to sound intelligent or well-read can detract from a scene’s pacing. Complex language does not equal strong writing.
Additionally, some common verbs are beneficial, especially when they are meant to blend into the page. The main example is said. Said blends into dialogue tags and doesn’t jolt pacing, unlike a slew of said synonyms one after another. If you don’t like the word said, consider using an action as part of the dialogue tag. This also gives you the bonus opportunity of using a strong action verb. Author Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz has an excellent blog post at Writer’s Digest on this exact topic.
The solution to knowing if a common verb is weak or necessary is to analyze the common verb. Can the verb be replaced with a verb that has more action or imagery? Is the verb used effectively? Is the verb being modified by another weak adverb? By answering these questions, you will identify if the common verb is essential or needs to be revised.
Why Should I Replace Weak Verbs?
Replacing aesthetically weak verbs brings life to your sentences. Strong, dynamic verbs enhance pacing, visualization, and language. Reading will be more enjoyable for the reader and your language will be more impactful and powerful. For these reasons, it’s important to include replacing weak verbs in your editing routine.