Build Your Verb Vocabulary

Nouns and verbs are the building blocks of any language, so it stands to reason that they’re worth some extra attention. To brush up on your grammar, linking verbs (“is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” etc.) connect a noun another to another word that describes it. There are only about six of those, so building your vocabulary of linking verbs takes no effort at all.


Obviously, then, I’m talking about action verbs. Action verbs show action. What’s more, the English language is full of them. Action verbs can make your sentences sparkle, waltz, leap, and crackle; what’s more, they can contribute a big emotional wallop in a very small space. Consider these sentences:


Mrs. Jordan walked into the classroom and put her book on the desk.

Mrs. Jordan stalked into the classroom and slammed her book on the desk.

Mrs. Jordan glided into the classroom and placed her book on the desk.


The first sentence tells what Mrs. Jordan did with no hint about how she felt. But if you were describing an angry scene, the second sentence gets the point across without even saying that “Mrs. Jordan was angry.” The verbs tell us, all by themselves, just as they tell us in the last sentence that she is absurdly serene or happy.


Try this: rewrite the following sentences at least twice, changing only the verb. The new verb should carry some indication of how the subject of the sentence is feeling.


Sandy sat in the folding chair.

Mr. Maple walked up the hospital drive.

The bluebird flew through the sky.



Now try this: rewrite the sentences below at least twice, showing the action of an inanimate object. We’re assuming that these vehicles are not experiencing any particular emotion, but try to communicate a sense of their condition or purpose.


The station wagon rolled down Fourth Plain Boulevard.

The propellers on Piper Cub turned and made noise.




Writing with strong acting verbs is not just good literary advice, it’s good biological advice. No joke: recent studies indicate that there’s a direct connection between reading action verbs and the brain’s sensation of actually doing that action. How do we know this? The brain’s motor cortex is divided into segments that control the action of various muscles of the body. When those muscles flex, the corresponding part of the brain “lights up” (indicated by MRIs, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Likewise, parts of the cerebral cortex respond to language. What no one understood until recently is that the language and motor areas of the brain were directly connected. When a person reads an active verb, the part of the brain connected to that verb’s action will respond–it’s as if the reader’s brain were experiencing that action. This may help to explain why reading an exciting passage in a book will make your heart pound and your breath get shorter. Neutral action verbs and liverbsnking verbs have no such MRI-stimulating power. (For more details, see the January 2004 issue of Neuron magazine.)


So there you have it: Whenever possible and appropriate, substitute strong action verbs for weak ones. Did Steve hit the baseball, or did he slam it? Is Kyle standing in the doorway, or might he be slouching? Does Chandra sit in the auditorium chair, or drop into it? Is it time to drag out your Thesaurus and rustle its pages, stalking the ideal verb?


HOWEVER: Don’t imagine that you should avoid linking verbs altogether, or pack every sentence you write with a powerful verb. The idea is to help your reader see the action, not to pummel his or her cerebral cortex with it. In the second paragraph of this lesson I wrote, “The English language is full of them [action verbs].” I could have written, “The English language teems with them,” and considered doing so, but it seemed a bit much. So I decided not to. Effective writing is a process of making lots of little decisions about word choices, sentence arrangements, and details. But one decision you can make now is to expand your vocabulary of action verbs