Words’ Worth

By Terri Brooks







Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bully, rag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize, or ruffle the animals.





ENGLISH IS BLESSED WITH GREAT VERBS, as some lover of animals and words acknowledged in the above sign. Several commandments govern verb use in feature writing:

1.      Never use weak verbs when strong ones will do.


2.      Never use one passive voice when the active one will do.


3.      Never use the past tense when the present tense will do.


4.      Never use big or awkward verbs when little ones will do.


5.      Never use adverbs to shore up weak verbs.


6.      Never carelessly switch verb tenses.


7.      Never violate subject-verb agreement.


Let’s look at these rules and, equally important, their exceptions.


1.         Never Use Weak Verbs When Strong Ones Will Do

Verbs can make or break a story. And nothing will break a story faster than a string of listless verbs. The main culprits are forms of the verbs to be, to go, to do, to get, to have, to make. There is nothing wrong with these verbs per se. Far from it. They are a staple of our language. They are comfortable and familiar; they don’t startle or disconcert. But too many, thrown around carelessly, will make readers feel like they a re slogging through quicksand; when the drag becomes great enough, readers balk and stop—which is fair enough. After all, if the writer has not been patient enough to sow the story with hardy verbs, then why should the reader muster enough patience to slog on?



Verb abuse is a sign that the writer may in fact be sloppy about word choice in general, so that the sentences suffer not only from verbal anemia but also from other kinds of neglect. The same writers tend to lean on vagueness and clichés, so that the story slowly sinks, unloved and untended, into the tepid purgatory where all such syntax deserves to go.



Whenever you feel stuck for a pithy verb, consult a thesaurus. It doesn’t always give you what you want, but it does prod the brain. 



Strong verbs tend to be particularly important in sentences that contain description. This is because description, while crucial to the life of a story, also stops the forward progress of the story to focus on specific details that will give it depth and breadth. To overcome this slowed momentum, it is useful, whenever possible, to wrap description around action verbs to keep the story moving.



Here is an example of a stalled description:



She is small and frail and wears a tattered red dress.



She goes over to the child, bends down, and picks him up.



The problem here is that the first sentence contains all description, and no action. The second sentence plods along behind with weak verbs. To correct this, it can be rewritten:


The tattered dress clings to (or shifts loosely on) her frail as she bends to pick up the child.



In this edit, three weak verbs are cut: is, wears, goes. They are replaced with one new verb—clings—which describes a more graphic action. By folding the description from the first sentence into the action of the second sentence, the story no longer stalls. Instead, the description becomes an unobtrusive part of the action.



Verbs are a powerful tool when used to enhance an already dramatic scene. A few years ago, when a teenager killed her parents in Milburnton, Tennessee, the reporter re-created the terror with careful description wrapped around riveting verbs.




The first bullet hit Jean Turnmire in the left breast. 


“Ginger, I love you,” the woman said as her 15-year-old daughter squeezed the trigger again.


The second shot struck the left side of the woman’s head, killing her instantly and making the third bullet, which slammed into her back as she slumped forward on her bed, unnecessary.


J. S. Turnmire, hearing the gunshots in the back of the house, leaped from his easy chair in the den and began running towards his wife’s bedroom.


He made it to the hallway.


There, a single bullet hit him in the left nostril, ripping apart the lower half of his brain.




This brutal scene becomes even more unforgettable when described with the arsenal of verbs: hit, squeeze, strike, kill, slam, slump, leap, run, rip. It would have been less awful if the reporter had simply written a straight news story:


“According to testimony, Mrs. Turnmire was shot three times. Her husband was shot once while trying to come to her aid.”



Instead, the re-creation of the gruesome moment with the compelling verbs that heighten the massacre make this an unforgettable scene—as much as one might like to forget it.



But it is the undramatic moments—the ho-hum scenarios of everyday life—that provide the real challenge in verb use. Then the writer’s ingenuity is put to the test. Trying to insert verve into a political luncheon, a public-relations event, a grand opening or ground-breaking; trying to spice up the profile of a person who is uncooperative or boring—these are the features in which writers must pry out those verbs that may salvage the story.



Indeed, verbs can save the writer who is faced with the formidable task of trying to make people and events look more interesting than they really are.


Here is how one reporter handled a public-relations birthday party for singer Jerry Lee Lewis, held at a bar in Memphis, Tennessee.




Invitations in hand, his friends surged into Hemando’s Hideaway, a wood-paneled juke joint on Memphis’ south side, to get liquored up and to party all night long last Monday. . .


Squeezing around his table, they jockeyed for his attention. Big-boned, hulking farmers vied with publicity men in leisure suits to shake his hand. Bored young women in leather and chiffon pressed against giddy middle-aged ladies with beehive hairstyles to take snapshots and peck him on the cheek.




Every verb is pulling its weight here; every verb carries momentum. Not because the story lends itself to these particular verbs, but because the writer found the verbs and lent them to the story.


The less experienced writer might have written it this way:



Several hundred people came to Hernando’s Hideaway, a wood- paneled juke joint on Memphis’ south side, to have a good time and try to shake the hand of Jerry Lee Lewis. The people there ranged from big-boned hulking farmers to publicity men in leisure suits, from bored young women in leather and chiffon to giddy middle-aged ladies with beehive hairstyles.



This is the kind of prose often produced by beginning writers—a prose not yet sensitive to the power of verbs. The problem in this second example is that all the action occurs in the first sentence; the second sentence contains only description. So the writer has two tasks here: first, to integrate the action and description; second, to beef up the verbs. Why use limp verbs like

“have,” “try,” and “range” when lively verbs like “surge,” “liquor up,” “party,” “jockey,” and “vie” are available?



Effective use of verbs depends not only on your mastery of the subtleties of the English language, but also on your perceptiveness in gathering the kinds of description that can be wrapped effectively around the verbs. If you are observant enough, you can insert action in places where, to the untrained eye, no action seems to tread.



Here, for example, is a profile of a train announcer at Pennsylvania Station, a man whose sedentary job it is to sit in a booth all day long and call out train arrivals and departures.



He sits alone in a darkened Plexiglass booth that juts from the wall 10 feet above the floor of the main waiting room. One day this week, a commuter leaned against a post and waited for Mr. Simmons to bellow his next “All aboard!”, then gave him the thumbs-up sign and hustled off to work. An elderly woman waited for an “All aboard!”, then blew Mr. Simmons a kiss and was on her way.


Up in the booth, Mr. Simmons barked out the last call for The Crescent. An elderly couple applauded. A young couple held each other in a fast embrace. A young man crashed through the crowd, racing for the train, and several commuters charging to another train sang out the “All aboard!” in chorus with Mr. Simmons.



This job is basically boring, as the subject Daniel Simmons himself pointed out to the writer. So the writer finds ways to compensate. First, he uses strong verbs when describing Simmons’s work. His booth doesn’t just stick out or protrude from a wall, it assertively juts out; Simmons doesn’t just announce loudly; he bellows, he barks.



Second, the writer spices up the story by including others’ reactions to Simmons’s voice. By focusing on a few moments in a given day, and by watching carefully, the writer is able to capture the kind of detail that lets him incorporate more zest—people lean, hustle, blow, applaud, hold,

crash, race, sing—into an essentially quiescent story. Because the writer captures these responses from others, rather than relying on Mr. Simmons’s response to others, the writer has managed to work his way around the story until he finds an “in” for action verbs.



In fact, no matter how quiet a moment, a good writer can capture it with compelling, assertive verbs. Here, for instance, is how one writer described a widow at a memorial service for her husband.



Her head fell forward as the bugler began to play, her hair covered her face like a curtain, and her face folded like paper, and then she raised her head, sprung the hair back, almost defiant in her determination to face up, to be strong.



The untrained eye might see only a woman sitting quietly, a look of grief on her face. This writer notices the small details, and then couples them with a series of verbs that indicate first a closing in upon oneself, a descent into grief—fall, cover, fold—and then a tentative spark of strength, of tenacity, with verbs like “raise” and “swing.”



2.            Never Use the Passive Voice When the Active One Will Do


The passive voice carelessly used slows the pace of the story. When verbs are active, so is the sentence. When verbs are passive, the sentence also loses its punch: instead of doing something, the subject has something done to it.



For example:



Active: She passed the potatoes around the table.



Passive: The potatoes were passed around the table.



When a sentence is in the passive voice, we don’t know who is performing the action. The actor is missing, unknown unless a phrase is added.



The impact of the passive voice is to wind the sentence back upon itself, so that instead of moving forward it seems to be elliptical, with the verb guiding the reader backward toward the subject of the sentence rather than onward to the object. |


But be forewarned that verbs are feisty creatures, chafing at their barricades. In fact, much of what follows will deal with exceptions to this rule to favor the active voice. Nevertheless, the rule itself stands firm.



There are times, for instance, when the passive verb form is unavoidable, and even acceptable. It occurs often, for instance, when writers describe a legal action: she was released on bond; he was read his rights; police were called to the scene; court was adjourned; they were promised immunity.



While these sentences could be converted to the active voice (the judge released her on bond; the police read him his rights; a telephone call brought police to the scene; the judge adjourned the court; the district attorney promised immunity) the change doesn’t improve the copy, and can

even seem awkward. Common usage wins out.



The passive voice also might be used when the subject is an unknown or amorphous “other”—whether an individual or a group. For example:



The toxic wastes had been put on his property about 20 years ago.



Many solutions to save the Acropolis have been offered.



In emergencies, planes are chartered to save lives.



The government’s plan to demolish the camp by the end of the year has been deferred for the time being.



It is understood in the above sentences that the strength of the sentence lies not in who performed the action, but in the potential results of the action—dumping toxic wastes, saving the Acropolis, chartering planes, deferring the demolition.



The passive voice is also a way to avoid inserting the reporter into the story when the reporter is a witness to an event or a conversation. For instance:



From his office window, overlooking barbed-wire fences and barren ground, a convoy of white soldiers could be seen patrolling Soweto.



Here, the reporter is the one who observed the military patrol during an interview. The use of the passive voice is a way to convey this information without using the pronoun “I” or the equally awkward “one,” or “a reporter,” as in “a reporter saw a convoy of white soldiers . . .”



Or, consider this interview with a judge who has come under attack for never voting to affirm a death penalty verdict:



The chief justice of the California Supreme Court is asked to imagine, momentarily, that she is gazing across her desk at the mother of a murdered child.



This is a key question in this interview, a chance for the writer to play devil’s advocate. However, it would be intrusive for the reporter to write “I asked the chief justice of the California Supreme Court to imagine....” It would detract from the real subject of the story—the judge and her opinions. The passive voice is a neutral shield to keep the writer from intruding upon the reader.



If you are really confident about your ability to control a story through verb use, the passive voice may also be used from time to time as a literary device to reflect a person’s helplessness or inability to control a situation. One example is in this story about an elderly couple being harassed by teenagers:



On a night around Easter, his house was bombarded with raw eggs.



Or in this story of a fatal accident about to happen during the filming of a movie:



Behind them things were blowing up, brilliant, thudding, high cascades of light.



Each of these sentences has other strengths to compensate for the passive verb form. First, the verbs themselves are lively: “bombard” and “blow up.” Second, the construction (or architectonics) of the sentences compensates for the passive voice.

Let’s look at the first sentence. It both begins (“On a night around Easter”) and ends (“with raw eggs”) with prepositional phrases that together absorb the weight of the sentence. The emphasis is at the beginning and the end, and the verb—the hostile action—acts like a hinge around which

the sentence swings. 

In the second sentence, the tension seems to rise slowly to a crescendo in the series of descriptions beyond the verb—“brilliant, thudding, high cascades of light.” This combination of passive verb and delayed action makes the sentence seem to move in suspenseful slow

motion—there is violence, but as seen from a distance, like a far-off bombing.


Or, you can deliberately use the passive voice to break out of a string of active verbs in order to alter the pace of the story. When you use passive verbs in this way, they also tend to highlight information that precedes or follows.


Here, for example, is how two writers describe U.S. Customs Service agents tracking a drug-laden plane as it returns from Colombia, South America, to Florida:



Radios began to buzz as voices detail the northward path of the plane. Agents scramble to open metal lockers and pass out flight bags. Pistols are strapped on belt loops. Handguns are slipped into shoulder holsters and boots. Shotguns are filled with shells. 

Pilots huddle over a maze of maps which cover the long route from Florida to an isolated, unlit airfield deep in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where the target plane is expected to land.


Bullet-proof vests are handed out. Half-smoked cigarettes are crushed into overflowing ashtrays.

The agents rush out the door to their waiting planes.



Out of the sixteen verbs used, more than one-third are passive. Yet the scene seems to crackle with action. Why? First, the verbs are small but powerful, and (“began”) are in the present tense: buzz, scramble, strap, slip, huddle, cover, crush, rush.



The writer is also careful to bracket the entire scene with active verbs: the first two sentences and the last sentence are in the active, not the passive, voice (and have peppy verbs like buzz, scramble, rush). And notice how the passive verbs, with one exception, are confined to short, brisk sentences. That exception comes in the long single sentence in the middle paragraph,

which helps to break up the repetitiveness of the short, snappy sentences in the first and third paragraphs. That long sentence also helps emphasize the action-packed shorter ones around it. 

It is unlikely, of course, that the writers sat down and did a content analysis of the impact of using the passive voice in this scene. Rather, they had a sense of what “works” in their copy—an intuition about language that comes only with careful attention to word choice and syntax, and that improves with experience.



Consider how their story would flow if they had followed a hard-and-fast rule of using active voice only:



Radios began to buzz as voices detail the northward path of the plane. Agents scramble to open metal lockers and pass out fight bags. They strap pistols on belt loops. They fill shotguns with shells.


Pilots huddle over a maze of maps which cover the long route from Florida to an isolated, unlit airfield deep in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where they expect the target plane to land.


The supervisor hands out bullet-proof vests. Agents crush half- smoked cigarettes into overflowing ashtrays. They rush out the door to their waiting planes.



Not bad. It would pass most editors’ desks. But the lack of variety in the verbs makes this less snappy than the original. 

However, keep in mind that the above exceptions prove the rule. Only use the passive voice with intent—to produce a certain effect—and always use it with care.



When possible, stick to the active voice. It will get you there faster.



3.            Never Use the Past Tense When the Present Tense Will Do


Writing in the present makes the story seem more immediate, as in the above example. Use it whenever possible. It particularly lends itself to profiles or “offbeat” features about places, people, or situations. If you do a feature on a local bakery, a profile of a fire chief, or an in-depth report of a controversy over an abortion clinic, it can be presented in the present tense as long as the

bakery, fire chief, and controversy remain extant.



4.            Never Use Big or Awkward Verbs When Little Ones Will Do

Big verbs come in several disguises. There are pretentious ones, silly ones, bloated ones. In general, the bigger the verb the more oblique its meaning. Short verbs tend to be more concise.



As the language evolves, adjectives and nouns are sometimes made into verbs, such as “to network,” “to finalize,” “to fault,” “to bus,” “to hassle.” These verbs seem jarring when they first appear.



A recently heard one is “to office,” as in “She is not officing today” (meaning she is not coming in to work). Another of recent vintage is “to dorm,” as in “John and I dorm together.”



Computer literature is producing an interesting and sometimes irresistible array of new verbs, as “to bibble” (search through a bibliography). Presumably, one could say: “I am going to bibble around in my computer.” Or perhaps: “Please bibble my database.”


The words “and” and “or,” known by most of us as conjunctions, have also been transformed into computer verbs. To “and” something means you are going to ask your computer to search for a listing of a group of topics such as: “Australia and Kangaroos.” To “or” something means you are going to ask your computer to search for a group of alternative topics or phrases, such as

“Australia or Kangaroos.” This is known in computer lingo as a “hedge,” and is used most often if you are unsure about the terms used in a database. So don’t be surprised if some day your local librarian explains: “You can or these terms and then and them with the topic of interest.”



Because language is malleable, and always in a state of flux, it is hard to know which of these “new” verbs will eventually enter mainstream English, and which will just fade away. H. L. Mencken complained way back in 1919 about many new verbs-from-nouns, such as “to contact,” “to audition,” “to curb,” “to alert,” “to package,” “to research,” “to panic,” and “to option”—all of

which are now standard linguistic fare. Mencken, who listed many that never made it to the end of the century (“to music,” “to biography,” “to siesta,” “to guest”), also had this to say about verbs and their relatives:



The nouns in common use, in the main, are quite sound in form. The adjectives, too, are treated rather politely, and the adverbs, though commonly transformed into the forms of their corresponding adjectives, are not further mutilated. But the verbs and pronouns undergo changes which set off the common speech very sharply from both correct English and correct American.

This is only natural, for it is among the verbs and pronouns that nearly all the remaining inflections in English are to be found, and so they must bear the chief pressure of the influences that have been warring upon every sort of inflection since the earliest days.



But if you are thinking of being creative and cute with verbs, a good rule to follow is: proceed with caution. An nout-of-place noun or adjective used as a verb will probably detract from the larger story at hand. It is better to master the compendium of existing verbs before you start creating new ones. Read John McPhee (who cultivates verbs like “to parse,” “to sein”) to get a sense of the big ideas that can come from small verbs. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it moving.


5.            Never Use Adverbs to Shore Up Weak Verbs (Use a Stronger Verb Instead)


Avoid phrases like “speak softly” (just use whisper) or “move swiftly” (just use run, jog, trot, or dash).



Writers unaware of the power of verbs tend to use adverbs where none are needed. In most cases, a strong verb is strong enough on its own; the adverb is redundant. A few redundancies from recently published stories include:



wander away - wander



totally destroy - destroy



seriously consider - consider



wink slyly - wink



be absolutely sure - be sure



be definitely interested - be interested



be perfectly clear - be clear



search frantically - search



mercilessly tortured - tortured



Use adverbs only when they add a descriptive ingredient to the story that a verb cannot supply, as in these examples:



He viciously attacked with a sharp chisel a three-ton block of limestone. [He could have attacked it hesitantly, skillfully, etc.]



Peter Mpumelelo paced disconsolately in the sand. [He could have paced thoughtfully, eagerly, etc.]



6.            Never Carelessly Switch Verb Tenses


Ground your story in one tense. If you start your story in the present tense, stay there. If you start in the past tense, stay there. You can then use other tenses as needed to indicate corollary time changes in the story. Many beginning writers inadvertently change tenses in a feature. It is confusing for the reader, and will be caught by an editor (one hopes). But editors slip up too. The ultimate responsibility for producing clean, clear, readable prose rests with the writer. If you frustrate and confuse your readers with inconsistent verb tenses, they will avenge themselves by turning to another story.



7.            Never Violate Subject-Verb Agreement


Single subjects take single verbs; plural subjects take plural verbs. Once verbs start to wander from the vicinity of the subject, mistakes appear. Take this story from the International Herald Tribune:



The very visibility that makes Mrs. Gorbachev the object of approving and consuming curiosity in the West have led to a broad feeling in many levels of Soviet society that she is somehow overstepping her position. [It should be: visibility has. ]



Or this one from the New York Times:



The official radio said his resignation from both the Burmese Government and the ruling party were accepted. [It should be: was accepted.]



These basic errors made it past some of the world’s best editors.



One way to check on how well you are abiding by the seven verb rules in the chapter is to go through your own story when you are done writing, and highlight your verbs. You will then be able to see if you have too many dull, passive, or overblown verbs, verbs shored up by superfluous adverbs, or errors in verb tense or agreement.



Verbs alone do not make or break a story, of course. It is, in fact, possible at least in theory to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature using only dull, passive verbs. Verbs are but one component—albeit an important one—in the complex, subtle, sophisticated machinery that constitutes a sentence, a paragraph, or a page of prose.



But inattention to verbs usually indicates a general laxity about language. Only strong nouns, and a good sense of the heft of a sentence—how it will handle itself on the page—will compensate for shaky verbs.


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Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. . . . In general . . . it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.

----pp. 57-58 of my edition

The Elements of Style

Strunk and White

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From a student's report on an appearance by the famous Jimmy Breslin at the J School last year: 



What Jimmy Breslin Told Me (at a Journalism School presentation)


Jimmy Breslin, man and legend, spoke to Les Payne’s news editing class yesterday, delivering a tour de force on New York, journalism and life.

For those who don’t know—and all should know—Breslin was for decades a columnist at the Daily News before switching in  1988 to Newsday, where Payne is an editor. He has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (of course) as well as a the George K.  Polk Award and the Meyer Berger Award. He has also written many books including “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight” and his recent memoir “I Want to Thank My Brain For Remembering Me.”

“You’ve got to make your living with verbs,” Breslin said, opening his remarks. “And the verb has to move.” This advice holds whether you’re writing for TV, newspapers or the Internet.


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From “The Writer’s Web”:


Adding Action and Clarity to Writing

Avoiding Weak Verbs and Passive Voice:

Linking verbs include the following forms of the verb to be: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been.  Contractions such as I’m, we’re, and he’s are also built upon linking verbs and express a state of being.  Many writers, teachers, and professionals consider these verbs weak because they do not express any action; instead, they simply tell the reader that something exists.

Passive voice consists of a form of “be” and a past participle (look for -ed endings):

The student’s name was mentioned in the newspaper.

Passive voice tends to conceal rather than reveal information.  In the sample sentence above, we do not know who mentioned the student’s name or why he or she mentioned it.  The following sentences also conceal important information:

The decision was made. (Who made the decision?)

The telephone bill was paid last week. (Who paid it?)

The policeman was concerned by the stories. After hearing them, he was convinced that at least one person had committed a serious crime. (Whew! The second sentence drags on.)

On the other hand, these revisions provide clear evidence of “who did what to whom”:

His parents paid the phone bill last week.

The senator made the decision.

The stories worried the policeman. He knew, after hearing them, that at least one person had committed a serious crime.

Weak verbs allow sentences to ramble on; often the predicates of such sentences are too lengthy and contain confusing prepositional phrases:

Both Becky Crawley and Lily Bart are looked upon with disfavor on the very evenings of their greatest triumphs in front of audiences.

A revision of this sentence might eliminate some of the unneeded prepositional phrases and clearly state who disapproves of Becky and Lily:

Their audiences disapprove of Becky Crawley and Lily Bart even on the evenings of their greatest theatrical triumphs.

The next sentence should explain how the audiences disapproved of the women.


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