Dr. Karen Palmer
When revising your paper, one thing to look for is your verb use. Using wimpy verbs can make your writing appear uninteresting and lackluster. However, using strong verbs livens up your writing and keeps readers interested. In each of the sections below, we identify some ideas for strengthening your verbs. You can use the Find feature in Word to search for each of these types of weak verbs and determine how you might make revisions that will make your writing more interesting.
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Avoid “State of Being” Verbs
Read through your paper and look for any forms of the verbs be, do, and have.
am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
do, does, did, doing, done
have, has, had, having
These are verbs that reflect a state of being, rather than action. To spice up your writing, try to change at least some of those ‘state of being’ verbs to more active options. =
He had a lot of clothes.
His clothes overflowed his closets.
Notice that when we eliminate the state of being verb, the sentence gets much more interesting!
Avoid Verbs Followed by an Adverb
Look for any places in your writing where a verb is followed by an adverb.
She walked slowly.
He ate quickly.
Replace these pairs of verbs and adverbs with a stronger verb that conveys the feeling of the adverb.
She dragged her feet.
He gulped his food.
Use Active Voice
Two sentences can generally say the same thing but leave an entirely different impression based on the verb choices. For example, which of the following sentences gives you the most vivid mental picture?
A bald eagle was overhead and now is low in the sky near me.
A bald eagle soared overhead and then dove low, seemingly coming right at me.
Even though the passive voice might include an action verb, the strength of the action verb is lessened by the structure of the sentence. Also, the passive voice tends to create unnecessary wordiness.
Read the following sentences and think of a way to reword each using an action verb in active voice.
1. Original: The zebras were fed by the zoo workers. (eight words)
2. Original: Water was spewed in the air by the elephant. (nine words)
3. Original: The home of the hippopotamus was cleaned up and made tidy by Hank the Hippo Man. (sixteen words)
When to Use Passive Voice
Sometimes passive voice actually is the best option. The point is to only use passive voice when you consciously decide to do so. There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.
- When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.
- When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.
- When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to (or the person or thing that performed the action is not important): Caroline was hurt when Kent broke up with her. or The park was flooded all week.
- When you do not want to place credit, responsibility, or blame: A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being on trial.
- When you want to maintain the impression of objectivity: It was noted that only first graders chose to eat the fruit.
- A subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.
- When you want to avoid using a gendered construction and pluralizing is not an option: If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.
However, some instructors and/or disciplines prefer that the passive voice not be used. This could be due to requirements for writing in that discipline, or it could be a way for an instructor to be sure students don’t overuse the passive voice. Overuse of the passive voice makes writing dull, so be sure you are using it appropriately.
Avoid “There is/There are/It is” Constructions
You might have developed a tendency to use another rather dull and unimaginative form of passive voice, by starting sentences with “there is,” “there are,” “there were,” “it is,” or “it was.” Read each of the following examples of this kind of passive voice construction. In your head, think of a way to reword the sentence to make it more interesting by using an action verb.
Look through your paper and circle any sentence that begin with “There is” or “There are” or “It is.” These sentence openings can make your writing seem dull and repetitive. Try removing “There is” or “There are” to make your sentences more interesting.
It is interesting to study literature.
vs The study of literature interests me.
As a rule, try to express yourself with action verbs instead of forms of the verb “to be.” Sometimes it is fine to use forms of the verb “to be,” such as “is” or “are,” but it is easy to overuse them (as in this sentence—twice). Overuse of such verbs results in dull writing.
Read each of the following sentences and note the use of the verb “to be.” In your head, think of a way to reword the sentence to make it more interesting by using an action verb. Then look at how each revision uses one or more action verbs.
Original: A photo was snapped, the tiger was upset, and Elizabeth was on the ground.
Revision: Elizabeth innocently snapped the photo and the lion let out a roar that sent Elizabeth scrambling backward until she fell down.
1. Original: A giraffe’s neck is long and thin, but it is as much as five hundred pounds in weight.
2. Original: An elephant is able to drink eighty gallons of water and is likely to eat one thousand pounds of vegetation in a day.
3. Original: There are thousands of butterflies in the Butterfly House.
4. Original: There were four giraffes eating leaves from the trees.
- “Choosing Appropriate Verb Tenses”, section 15.2 from the book Writers’ Handbook (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
- The Passive versus Active Voice Dilemma. Authored by: Joe Schall. Provided by: The Pennsylvania State University. Located at: https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c1_p11.html. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
- Content adapted from “Writing in Active Voice and Uses of Passive Voice” licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0.