What Is a Strong Verb?
A strong verb is a verb in a sentence that ensures active voice within that sentence, rather than weak verbs that often create passive voice in a sentence. While certain verbs may more easily create active voice and act as strong verbs quite often, most verbs can potentially be strong or weak depending on how they are used. A strong verb typically stands on its own in a sentence, often without an auxiliary verb, and clearly indicates the action performed by the subject of the sentence. In “The dog chewed the bone,” the verb “chewed” is strong, while in a sentence like “The bone was chewed by the dog,” it becomes weak.
Proper word order and elimination of weak or unnecessary words within a sentence can often help produce a sentence with a strong verb rather than a weak one. One of the main functions of a strong verb is to ensure active voice within a sentence, which makes the sentence feel stronger and more direct. This is typically done by beginning a sentence with a subject that is taking action in that sentence, rather than starting the sentence with a direct or indirect object and embedding the subject in the sentence later.
The use of a strong verb typically creates direct action within a sentence, producing a line that is clear and easy to understand for a reader. In a sentence like “The man hit the ball with the bat and ran around the bases,” the meaning is clear and the action is strong and direct. The word “hit” in this sentence is a strong verb, as is “ran,” and stands alone without any auxiliary verbs. A reader of this sentence can clearly tell what the action is and the entire event has a feeling of immediacy and “power” behind it.
When a strong verb is not used, however, a weak verb is typically found and the sentence often loses the sense of strength and action it could have had. If the previous example was rewritten as “The ball was hit by the man who ran around the bases,” the action has become somewhat diluted and the meaning made less clear. The weak verb in that sentence is the phrase “was hit,” which has taken on an auxiliary and the subject of the sentence has seemingly become the ball, rather than the man. Without using a strong verb, the secondary action in the sentence, the man running around the bases, also becomes confusing and the flow of the sentence becomes choppy and weak.
Using strong verbs is something I really struggle with sometimes. I am kind of glad that Word highlights when you are using the passive voice, because I agree that using strong verbs makes for much better writing most of the time.
One of the problems I have sometimes, though, is just figuring out how to change a passive sentence into an active sentence. I wish I could find something like a strong verbs list online that would give me potential options for fixing my sentences.
I think part of the problem is that I usually write in a similar manner to the way I talk. I have started to notice that people use a lot more of the passive voice when they are talking than when they are writing something.
@jcraig - Good observation. I believe part of the way to identify passive sentences is that they always use either "was" or "were." I'm not sure other forms of "be" work, though. Obviously, the choice of the past tense verb would depend on the number of subjects. Examples using the same sentence could be "A letter was written to her" or "The letters were written to her."
I think another good indicator of the passive sentence is that it usually ends with a prepositional phrase. Again, you can still have prepositional phrases with strong verbs, but the sentences have a different feel. The prepositional phrases of active sentences don't usually seem to play a central role in understanding the exact meaning of the sentence. Again, I'm sure you could find plenty of cases to contradict that, but I would say that it's a good general rule.
@TreeMan - Interesting points. I haven't really read a lot of scientific type things, but it makes a lot of sense that using the passive voice puts the emphasis of the sentence on the thing that's being used at that moment. I might be wrong about this, but it also seems like using the passive voice in those situations would make it easier for someone skimming the page to be able to find information more easily.
Is it always the case that an active sentence will never have a verb like "were?" Just thinking of a bunch of examples in my head, I can't come up with any. For that matter, is it possible to ever make a passive sentence without some form of the word "be?" I am also having a hard time even thinking of example of sentences that use any other form of "be" besides "were." Does anyone have any examples?
I think there is often too much negativity associated with using weak verbs to make passive sentences. Microsoft Word even identifies passive sentences and suggests changing them. I think this is good in some cases, but whether you use the active or passive voice is very much determined by the kind of writing you are doing. I think the best writers need to mix up the different voices to stress certain points.
For example, I typically do a lot of scientific writing. Since most experiments are talked about from an objective point of view, it's usually necessary to use the passive voice most of the time. You might use the sentence "5 mL of water were added to the beaker." This is much more appropriate than the active voices of "The beaker had 5 mL of water added to it" or "I added 5 mL of water to the beaker." Using the passive voice avoids having the use the first person as well as emphasizing exactly what was added to the beaker, which is important in scientific writing.
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