What’s a Strong Verb: Grammar Neep # 2

Good Grammar is sexyIf we’re going to discuss fine points of grammar and style, then we need to define some terms. Some of the fuzziest common terms are strong verb vs. weak verb. The difference twixt the two is not so easy to see and does contain a certain subjective element. Let’s limit our discussion and thus our problems to Fiction. The terms, strong and weak, are poor choices to begin with. Technically, a strong verb in the Germanic languages, which include English of course, is a verb that inflects by ablaut, that is, by internal vowel change: give/gave, fly/flew, and the like. Unfortunately, this precise usage has slopped into criticism as a short-hand for “verbs that work in this particular sentence” as opposed to “verbs that don’t.” How do we define “what works”? Therein lies the problem.’’

There are a couple of ways we can approach this. One is by arbitrary rules. The other takes into account the nature of the English language as well as its flexibility.  Since a fiction writer needs flexibility, I prefer the second approach, myself. Here’s an example: one oft-cited style rule concerns the passive voice. I among others consider that this construction makes verbs less effective, though at times it may be appropriate, simply because it turns direct description of an action into an indirect one.

“The horse drew the cart.’’ “The cart was drawn by the horse.”

The second example reads poorly not because of the verb form per se, but because of the misplaced emphasis.’ The actor is the horse, not the cart.’’ Therefore the horse should be “marked”, to use a linguistic term, as the subject of the sentence. Does this mean that the passive voice has absolutely no place in fiction?’ Of course not.’’ It does mean that most times, the passive voice conveys less information in an indirect, unclear manner than the active voice.

All writing is about conveying information in the clearest way possible. “Bad” grammar, “weak” verbs and the like are static in the signal, interfering with communication.’’ A “strong” verb, ie, an effective verb, conveys the most information in the most direct manner. (This does not mean “in the shortest possible way,” which seems to be one current interpretation of this general principle.) Effective verbs are also precise.’’

“He moved forward.” “He trotted forward.”

The second construction conveys more information than the first. It defines the way he’s moving forward.

Now, what about progressive verbs and perfect verbs that use an auxiliary plus a participle or mainstem verb together to convey meaning? “Perfect” here does not mean beyond reproach, but “finished, completed,” another confusing borrowing from Latin.

Perfect: he has trotted, he did trot.

Progressive: he was trotting, he is trotting, he had been trotting.

English depends on auxiliary verbs like to have, to be, to do, to define many aspects of verbs: tense, duration, possibility, conditionality. It’s impossible to write precise English without using them. Technically speaking, English has only two stand-alone forms: marked and unmarked, that is walk/walked, give/gave, and the like. The marker is the -ed or the ablaut that’marks past action.  Calling the forms such as walk “present tense” is a misnomer, a borrowing from Latin again. The forms with -ing and -en, as in walking, given, are participles, ie, they are formed from verbs but they fill different functions in the English sentence. They can act as adjectives and nouns as well as form verbal phrases in combination with auxiliaries.

Without auxiliary verbs, it is impossible to use English verbs precisely. That is, if an author was determined to eliminate all auxiliaries from his prose, he could convey simple past and an ambiguously unmarked pure verb form only. Try it and see — absolutely no uses of to be, to have, to do, can, could, would, should, will, shall, and so on allowed. These verbs are a natural and important part of English, as are the participles. They fulfill functions that no other words can fill.

Let’s go back to an example from our previous discussion of progressive tenses.

“He walked down the road when he saw the bird.”

This is ambiguous, as I said in that discussion. A poster here suggested substituting “spotted the bird” as a way of eliminating ambiguity, but does it?

“He walked down the road when he spotted the bird.”

This example still leaves an open question — was the bird a signal to walk down the road?’ Or did he happen to walking when he spotted it?

“He was walking down the road when he spotted the bird” — this construction eliminates the ambiguity. Or, to go to the other possible meaning, so would “He began to walk down the road when he spotted the bird.”

This is what I mean by precision. Only the progressive tense, and the use of “to be” with a participle, conveys the exact meaning of the author. Why anyone would want to throw away such an important tool is beyond me.

To sum up, my definition of an effective verb includes conveying precise information about an action by using the natural structures of the English language. It would also include using vivid words instead of pallid ones and a few other fine points, but all of these depend from the general principle that language should communicate as clearly as possible.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


What’s a Strong Verb: Grammar Neep # 2 — 5 Comments

  1. Beautifully concise and clear.

    Writerly strong verbs are not the same as grammatical strong verbs. Ironically, the most powerful verb in the language, to be, can be the weakest in effect, especially when the writer uses it then adds a verb as a noun.

    There was a loud bang as the door opened.

    The door banged open.

    The writer seems to feel that ‘bang’ as noun wasn’t strong enough, so added the ‘loud’ when ‘bang’ as a verb implies loud. Meanwhile the violence of the bang is muted by the stolidity of ‘there was’ up front.

  2. One technique that helps with the tenses is to write down the actions in the order they occurred.

    “He spotted the bird and started to walk down the road.”

    Of course, I’d probably write the other:

    “As he walked down the road, he spotted the bird.”

  3. If I read, “The cart was drawn by the horse,” I wouldn’t say, “misplaced emphasis.” I would assume that the writer wanted to emphasize the mechanism of pulling. The passive puts emphasis on the action rather than the actor. (I would also wonder how else carts moved in that world. The carter is being accused of witchcraft? Horses are too aristocratic for cart duty? Draft animals are a radical innovation?)

    When it comes to birds & walking, I see no grammatically feasible way to interpret “He walked down the road when he saw the bird” as referring to someone who was already walking when he saw the bird. When he saw the bird, he walked down the road. If the author wants him to see the bird while walking, s/he should say so. Of course, that may be the point.

    But readers don’t always interpret intent as intended.