2. PROFESSIONAL STYLE
2.4 The Importance of Verbs
Much of the style advice given so far revolves around the importance of verbs. Think of your sentence as a machine, and the verb as the engine that makes the machine work. Like machines, sentences can function efficiently or inefficiently, and the use of a strong verb is one way to make them work effectively. Also like machines, sentences can be simple or complex. Here are some key principles regarding the effective use of verbs in your sentences. While effective sentences may occasionally deviate from these principles, try to follow them as often as possible:
- Keep the subject and the verb close together; avoid separating them with words or phrases that could create confusion
- Place the verb near the beginning of the sentence (and close to the subject)
- Maintain a high verb/word ratio in your sentence
- Prefer active verb constructions over passive ones
- Avoid “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be) whenever possible
- Try to turn nominalizations (abstract nouns) back into verbs.
Use the verb strength chart in Table 2.4.1 as a guide to “elevate” weaker verbs (or words with implied action) in a sentence to stronger forms.
|Verb Forms||Verb Strength||Examples|
Maintain the machine properly!
Write the report!
(Subject performs the action of the verb)
He maintains the machine regularly.
She writes reports frequently.
She would maintain the machine if he would let her.
He would write reports if he had more training.
|Gerunds ( verb -ing)
Infinitives (to verb)
(these do not function as verbs in your sentence; actual verbs are highlighted in yellow)
While maintaining the machine, he gets quite dirty.
Report writing takes skill.
It takes a lot of time to maintain this machine.
To write effectively, one must get a sense of the audience.
(Subject receives the action of the verb)
Expressing a state of being (is, seems, appears)
The machine is maintained by him.
It would be maintained by her if…
The report was written by her.
Reports would be written by him if…
The report seems fine.
|Nominalizations (verbs turned into abstract nouns)
Participles (nouns or adjectives that used to be verbs)
Machine maintenance is dirty work.
A well-maintained machine is a thing of beauty.
Written work must be free of errors.
While you are not likely to use the command form very often, unless you are writing instructions, the second strongest form, Active Indicative, is the one you want to use most often (say, in about 80% of your sentences). In the indicative form, the subject carries out the action of the verb. This makes the sentence more direct, and often more concise.
Part of the skill of using active verbs lies in choosing the verbs that precisely describes the action you want to convey. English speakers have become somewhat lazy in choosing a small selection of verbs most of the time (to be, to do, to get, to make, to have, to put); as a result, these often-used verbs have come to have so many possible meanings that they are almost meaningless. Try looking up “make” or “have” in the dictionary; you will see pages and pages of possible meanings! Whenever possible, replace these bland verbs with more precise, descriptive verbs, as indicated in Table 2.4.2. Note that commonly used “signal verbs,” or verbs used to signal a quotation or paraphrase of someone else’s ideas, can also be more precise and descriptive. Saying “she writes” does not really indicate the purpose for the writing, whereas saying “she claims” suggests she is making an argument, and “she describes” makes her rhetorical purpose more evident.
|Bland Verbs||Descriptive Verbs|
Describe the rhetorical purpose behind what the author/speaker “says”:
Is, are, was, were being been
Instead of indicating what or how something “is,” describe what it DOES, by choosing a precise, active verb.
Replace progressive form (is ___ing) with indicative form
She is describing → She describes
Usually too colloquial (or passive); instead you could use more specific verbs such as
Become, acquire, obtain, receive, prepare, achieve, earn, contract, catch, understand, appreciate, etc.
Avoid using the emphatic tense in formal writing:
It does work → it works.
I do crack when I see apostrophe errors → I crack when I see apostrophe errors.
Instead: Perform, prepare, complete, etc.
Has to, have to
|This verb has many potential meanings! Try to find a more specific verb that “have/has” or “has to”:
Instead of “have to” try: Must, require, need, etc.
Build, construct, erect, devise, create, design, manufacture, produce, prepare, earn, etc.
Make a recommendation → recommend
For more detailed information on using signal verbs when introducing quotations, see Appendix C: Integrating Source Evidence into Your Writing.
EXERCISE 2.6 Improve the following sentences by elevating the verb and cutting clutter
- Market share is being lost by the company, as is shown in the graph in Figure 3.
- A description of the product is given by the author.
- An investigation of the issue has been conducted by her.
- His task is regional database systems troubleshooting handbook preparation.
- While a recommendation has been made by the committee, an agreement to increase the budget will have to be approved by the committee.
EXERCISE 2.7 Revision practice
The following paragraph on The Effects of Energy Drinks does not conform to the 7Cs and contains far too many “to be” verbs. Revise this paragraph so that it has a clear topic sentence, coherent transitions, correct syntax, and concise phrasing. In particular, try to eliminate all “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be), and rephrase using strong, descriptive, active verbs. The first 7 “to be” verbs are highlighted for you. Try to cut the word count (260 words) in half.
Here is the exercise in a Word document for you to download and revise:
Revision Exercise – Energy Drinks (.docx)
After trying the exercise, click on the link below to compare your revision to effective revisions of this passage done by other students:
Sample Revisions of Exercise 2.7 (.docx)
Table 2.4.3 sums up many key characteristics of effective professional style that you should try to avoid (poor style) and implement (effective style) while writing technical documents.
|Poor Style||Effective Style|
|Low VERB/WORD ratio per sentence||High VERB/WORD ratio per sentence|
|Excessive ‘is/are’ verbs||Concrete, descriptive verbs|
|Excessive passive verb constructions||Active verb constructions|
|Abstract or vague nouns||Concrete and specific nouns|
|Many prepositional phrases||Few prepositional phrases|
|Subject and verb are separated by words or phrases||Subject and verb are close together|
|Verb is near the end of the sentence||Verb is near the beginning of the sentence|
|Main idea (subject-verb relationship) is difficult to find||Main idea is clear|
|Sentence must be read more than once to understand it||Meaning is clear the first time you read it|
|Long, rambling sentences||Precise, specific sentences|