What are strong verbs, and how do you use them?
If you want to learn the precise difference between the terms strong and weak types of verbs, it can be a little confusing at first.
There are three ways to define the strength of verbs. There is a linguistic basis. A simple contrast between active and static verbs. Then there is a literary definition.
In a general sense, action verbs are strong, and we use them to make verbs more interesting in writing and speaking.
But it is worth taking a quick English class before we start. Then you can better understand the different definitions of a strong verb form.
1. The linguistic basis
The linguistic definition is based on the Germanic languages strong verb. It defines strong verbs as those that change the stem vowel of the present verb to form the past tense and past participle. These are usually irregular verbs.
Weak verbs are regular and do not modify the stem of the verb. They only add s for the present third person singular and ed to the present tense form for both the simple past and past participle.
For example, the verb drive is strong because its past forms are drove and driven.
Other examples are:
- be, was/were, been
- drink, drank, drunk
- fall, fell, fallen
- know, knew, known
- see, saw, seen
- shake, shook, shaken
- swim, swam, swum
- write, wrote, written
- fly, flew, flown
- go, went, gone
- ride, rode, ridden
- shrink, shrank, shrunk
- rise, rose, risen
But the regular verb look is weak because its past forms are both looked and looked.
There are only about two-hundred irregular modern English verbs that are linguistically strong.
2. Active vs static
A static verb describes a state and usually lasts for a long time. There is no sense of movement so it is rarely used in a continuous or progressive form.
Verbs such as be, have, know, seem, agree, feel, hear and want are almost always static in use.
Active verbs naturally describe an action. They are very often used in the progressive form.
It’s easy to think of many including run, running, cry, crying, throw, throwing, push, pushing, dance, dancing, sing, singing, drink, drinking and write and writing.
Active verbs are often preferred in most forms of writing because they are much more descriptive in a reader’s mind.
3. The literary basis
The third and most common definition of a verb that is strong is the one we use in writing and literature.
In this case, a strong verb is one that is precise and highly descriptive to replace a weak verb that is not.
The verb open is a weak verb. But unlatch, unlock, unbolt, and unbar are strong.
For your writing, use classes of verbs that add more punch
What is a strong verb?
The biggest difference between strong and weak verbs in writing is in their clarity of purpose and descriptive ability.
Whether you are writing a blog post or a novel, your choice of powerful verbs can make all the difference to the quality of your text.
Powerful verbs help you avoid using adverbs to describe how the action of the verb is performed.
It is much better to use one very strong verb that can do the exact same job. A weak verb is often one that needs the help of an adverb to give it a clearer meaning to the reader.
You can avoid this trap by making better verb selection.
Look at these examples:
He walked casually into the bar.
He ambled into the bar.
He walked gingerly towards the car.
He limped towards the car.
Tom drove home as fast as possible.
Tom sped home.
Ralph gleefully accepted the chance to enter the cooking competition.
Ralph jumped at the chance to enter the cooking competition.
Here are five common weak verbs that are used a lot in fiction writing. Look at the alternative verbs that are much stronger and far more expressive and rarely need to use an adverb.
Walked – strolled, ambled, trudged, plodded, tramped, marched, strode, trooped, wandered, prowled, footslogged
Ate – devoured, ingested, gobbled, gulped, swallowed, munched, chomped, feasted, dined, pigged (out)
Saw – glanced, admired, glimpsed, spied, examined, peeked, beheld, spotted, distinguished, sighted, viewed, observed
Ran – sprinted, raced, darted, rushed, dashed, hastened, scurries, scampered, hared, bolted, careered, charged
Said – screamed, uttered, mumbled, muttered, shouted, sobbed, whispered, insisted, pleaded
Note: Said has many better synonyms. In fact, there are 350 other words for said so you are spoilt for choice.
Another weak verb form is the gerund. Compare these sentences below and decide which ones have a stronger sense of meaning to you.
Arriving home late, he went straight to bed.
He arrived home late and went straight to bed.
Having had an awful day at the office, Sue opened a bottle of red.
Sue had an awful day at the office, so she opened a bottle of red.
After getting fired, Roger began searching for a new job
Roger started his job hunt soon after he got fired.
Avoid the gerund if possible. You can use a past or present verb form to define the action with more clarity.
The word onomatopeia derives from the Greek. It means that a verb is formed from the sound it represents.
In other words, the verb sounds very much like the action. These are very strong verbs because they are truly descriptive. They are particularly effective in fiction writing.
The sound of thunder boomed and cracked across the night sky.
Everyone sizzled during the long heatwave.
The elephant banged and crashed its way through the village.
The F1 driver revved his engine and zoomed away from the starting grid
John coughed as he zipped up his jacket.
Here are some common examples of English strong verbs that express a sound.
Water sounds – splash, squirt, drizzle, sprinkle, plop, slosh, spray
Vocal sounds – grunt, giggle, growl, belch, chatter, blurt, moan, blab
Collisions – slap, bam, clatter, click, clap, clink, thud, thump, jingle
Air sounds – whoosh, whizz, whip, swish, swoosh, waft, whiff, whisper, poof
Animal sounds – baa, buzz, cheep, meow, purr, cluck, tweet, warble, hiss
It’s not a rule you must always obey
Of course, you’ll find it impossible to replace every verb you use with a strong one.
You can’t write anything that makes sense without using static verbs like, to be, to have and to know. But the key to good writing is to identify when you can strengthen and tighten your writing with far better verb selection.
You don’t really need to have a strong verbs list as a reference. You’ll probably never look at it anyway.
All you need to do is take a moment to think about your choice of verb. Is there is a better, more concise and descriptive alternative you could use for your action verbs?
How can you find stronger verbs quickly?
The best way to improve your verb vocabulary selection is to use a thesaurus.
If you are looking for an alternative and more powerful verb to replace the verb drink, you would find swallow, gulp down, quaff, swill and guzzle.
But who has time today to grab such a heavy book from the bookshelf and wade through it page by page. If indeed you have one to grab, that is.
The fastest way for writers today to find suggestions is by using an online tool.
Both of these popular grammar checkers have an excellent thesaurus that can give you plenty of suitable synonyms in an instant.
All you need to do is click on a verb, and you’ll get an extensive list of alternative verbs. You can see how they work in the two images below.
Both tools are quick and easy to use and can help you find and choose much better synonyms and verbs as you write, either online or in a word processor.
From their suggestions to replace find, the verbs discover, spot and locate might be the best choices.
If you don’t have access to an online tool, there are many sites like thesaurus.com that can help you find better verbs and synonyms.
How to select much better verbs
If you are writing fiction, you will be using the past tense most of the time.
You should select your verbs based on their powerful descriptive qualities. You can also take a hint from the linguistic angle and note that verbs with irregular past and past participles are also good choices.
If you select well, you can help your writing to be more show than tell because you will be cutting down on your use of weak adverbs.
An excellent way to avoid telling is to check the frequency of your use of adverbs. Try to replace them to add movement directly to your verbs.
If you have too many adverbs or adjectives, try to rethink your verb by finding a much stronger alternative.
Another tip is to consider using phrasal verbs. Verbs like look up, sit down, move on and get over give an indication of movement from their particles. But be careful that they don’t affect the register of your writing.
In an article or blog post, you are usually writing in present tenses. You need to get your message across with powerful active verbs.
When you want readers to purchase a product or service, replacing the verb buy with get, pick up, snap up or invest in might be more beneficial.
For an article that is offering information to learn, you could replace learn with discover, find out, master or get to know, which could all work better.
Great writing is always when you make good vocabulary and grammar choices. It is especially true for your choice of verbs.
Take your time when you are writing, or editing, to examine the verbs you use. Check your dialogue tags carefully for weak reporting verbs with adverbs.
Can you find a better alternative that is more descriptive?
Your answer will be yes, a lot of the time.
But don’t get carried away. If every verb you use is strong, your writing will be difficult to read and understand. The best way is to know when, why and how to use them.
Related reading: Further vs Farther – How Are They Different?