Verbs: Writing Skills Success Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Exercises for this concept can be found at Verbs: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.

If you make yourself understood, you're always speaking well.

—Molière, French playwright (1622–1673)

Lesson Summary

Capturing your reader's interest is your main goal in writing. Learn how verbs can help you accelerate your writing abilities and liven up the tone of your work. Using strong verbs can really help reinvigorate the way your message is delivered.

Few people bother to read uninteresting writing. Even if they read it, they may not absorb the message. This lesson discusses ways to use verbs that will make your writing lively and interesting for the reader. Read the following two paragraphs. Which one seems livelier, more interesting? The paragraphs tell an identical story, but one of them uses verbs effectively to tell the story in such a way that it is more likely to be remembered. The sentences are presented one at a time, side by side, so you can make the comparison more easily.

Using Verbs to Create Strong Writing

Active vs. Passive Voice

When the subject of a sentence performs the action of the verb, we say the sentence is active. Write using active verbs to make your writing more conversational and interesting. In a sentence with an active verb, the person or thing that performs the action is named before the verb, or the action word(s), in a sentence. This may sound confusing, but the following examples illustrate the difference. The italicized words show who is performing the action. The underlined words are verbs.

Using Verbs to Create Strong Writing

In each of the active verb sentences, the person performing the action is named first. If you look more closely at these examples, you'll notice that the active verb versions are shorter and clearer. They sound more like natural conversation. Strive for these qualities in your writing. The following table illustrates the difference between active and passive voice in several of the verb tenses discussed in Verb Tense: Writing Skills Study Guide.

Most writers prefer active voice to passive voice because it makes the writing lively and more dynamic. Generally, readers find active writing easier to read and remember. In this table, you can see that active voice sentences tend to be shorter than passive ones.

Using Verbs to Create Strong Writing

When to Use Passive Voice

In addition to lacking life, the passive voice can also signal an unwillingness to take responsibility for actions or an intention to discourage questioning. The following sentence illustrates this:

It has been recommended that twenty workers be laid off within the next three months.

The passive voice here is intended to make a definite statement of fact, one that will not be questioned. It leaves no loose ends. Dictators often write and speak in passive voice. A thoughtful person will see past the passive voice and ask questions anyway. Who is recommending this action? Why? Who will be doing the laying off? How will workers be chosen?

Passive voice is not always bad, however. Sometimes, though rarely, it actually works better than active voice. The following are situations in which passive voice is preferable to active voice.

  1. When the object is more important than the agent of action (the doer)
  2. Sometimes, in scientific writing, the object is the focus rather than the doer. The following paragraph is written in both passive and active voice, respectively. The first paragraph is more appropriate in this case because the operation, not the doctor, is the focus of the action. The passage cannot be written in active voice without placing the emphasis on the doer, the doctor. Therefore, passive voice is the better choice in this instance.

      Passive voice:
      The three - inch incision is made right above the pubic bone. Plastic clips are used to clamp off blood vessels and minimize bleeding. The skin is folded back and secured with clamps. Next, the stomach muscle is cut at a 15-degree angle, right top to bottom left.
      Active voice:
      The doctor makes a three-inch incision right above the pubic bone. He uses plastic clips to clamp off the blood vessels and minimize bleeding. He folds back the skin and secures it with clamps. Next, he cuts the stomach muscle at a 15-degree angle, right top to bottom left.
  1. When the agent of action (doer) is unknown or secret
  2. Sometimes, a newswriter will protect a source by writing, "It was reported that . . ." In other instances, perhaps no one knows who perpetrated an action: "First State Bank was robbed . . ."

  3. When passive voice results in shorter sentences without detracting from the meaning
  4. Generally, active voice is shorter and more concise than passive voice. However, there are a few exceptions. Examine the examples in the following table. If using passive voice saves time and trouble, in addition to resulting in a shorter sentence, use it.

Using Verbs to Create Strong Writing

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