Monday, May 6, 2013

Grammar ABCs: V is for Verbs

Which sentence “shows” the action best?
• Joe walked to the house.
• Joe strode to the house.

Verbs are action words and are key to showing rather than telling. Verbs themselves can be active or passive, as you can see from the examples above. Joe walked is pretty mundane. It’s not wrong, but you can show his state of mind by using a strong, active verb, such as strode, stomped, loped, or stumbled. You can also describe the character with a verb, such as Joe limped.

Watch verb “helpers”, such as the “to be” form. Joe was walking. Again, it is not wrong, but it is more passive than even the simple Joe walked.

The voice of a verb tells whether the subject of the sentence performs the action (active or strong) or is acted upon (passive or weak.)
• Joe was praised by Glen. (passive)
• Glen praised Joe. (active)

The passive voice can be used when the actor is unknown or is less important than the object of the action.
• Participants in the survey were asked about their changes in political affiliation. (OK, because “who” is asking is unknown.)
• I was surprised by the teacher's lack of sympathy. (In this case it could be that the teacher is less important than the subject’s surprise. Or it could be re-written as: The teacher’s lack of sympathy surprised me.)

Keep your verb tense consistent.
• Not: Immediately after Booth shot Lincoln, Major Rathbone threw himself upon the assassin. (Verbs are past tense) But Booth pulls a knife and plunges it into the major’s arm. (Verbs change to present tense. It should be pulled and plunged in the second sentence.)

I could go on for pages and pages about all the ins and outs of verb usage, but will leave you with the advice to pick strong, active verbs that “show” rather than “tell.”

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. Terrific piece of advice.

    I struggle with verbs. In my first drafts, I throw in whatever comes to hand. I use the revision layers to make the choices stronger. I keep a list of weak or overused verbs to search for and kill. The list grows with every book.

  2. I don't sweat the verbs when I'm writing a scene, but I do edit each scene when it's done and I'll flag my 'no time to think of a good word here' spots and fix them the next day. Less daunting than going through a 100,000+ word manuscript (although I'll still do that, too--there just won't be as many things to fix)

    What I hate are the "Don't EVER use "was" people. It's a matter of authorial voice sometimes. Lee Child and Michael Connelly are doing just fine.

    Terry's Place

  3. Heidi, I too love a good action verb!

    It's so funny, though. While reading client manuscripts you can always tell whose work is under the recent spell of this type of post! Taken to the extreme—and no doubt with heavy thesaurus intrusion—too many active verbs bundled together can create an exhausting experience as the author jerks the attentive reader to and fro. ;)

  4. Which is better? Joe laid on the couch. OR Joe sprawled on the couch. If number two shows more action, that's the one I'll use from now on.

  5. Diana and Terry, it's great to go back later to add more active verbs, rather than stopping your momentum to think about them.

    Yes, never say never. Sometimes the best way to say something is to use the "to be" form.

    Christopher, I think sprawling on the couch is your best bet! (and for a hint on lay/laid, see my post

  6. I tend to write then go back and edit. I don't wait until the book is finished to do the edits, though. I tend to start a writing day by reading and editing what I've already written, then I pick up where I left off.

  7. Ah, the verbs. Great verbs contribute significantly to great writing. Thesaurus-laden verbs wear out the reader. It's all about balance. "To be" verbs have a place in our language and in our writing, so don't exclude them because someone (who may not know what they're talking about) says you should.

    A good idea is to record your scene or chapter and then play it back. Does it flow? Do any of the verbs make you frown or distract you from the story? Even better, listen to it after a day or so. You might be surprised at what you hear.

    Excellent post, Heidi.


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