One of the bits of advice that is often given to would-be writers is “Use strong verbs.” Apart from my usual allergy to rules and generalizations, one of the things that bothers me about this is that I’ve seldom seen anyone try to explain what it means, and on the rare occasions when someone does, the explanation usually boils down to “don’t use ‘is’.” Which is really just…wrong.
I’ve already done the rant on passive voice, so today I’m going to talk about verbs in general, and why there’s so much confusion about “passive verbs,” “weak verbs,” and so on.
First off, there’s no such thing as a passive verb. There’s passive voice, but that’s a construction that can be used with nearly any verb. Saying “He was hit by a truck” does not somehow make “to hit” less of an action.
What there are, are verbs that are a state of being and verbs that are actions. To hit, to stand, to jump, to buy, to taste are all action verbs. To want, to need, to owe, to hate are all states of being.
You can watch somebody running, or buying something, or hitting a baseball, and you can usually tell what he is doing. If you were asked, you could say “He ran across the street” or “She stood there and looked at the clouds.” States of being, however, are not necessarily visible or obvious. That woman who’s standing there looking at clouds – is she thinking? Wishing for something? Worrying? Feeling ill? You can’t tell from observing her behavior; all you can see her doing is standing there.
When writers are advised to dramatize scenes – to “show, don’t tell” – they’re usually advised to get rid of all the verbs except the action verbs, on the grounds that “showing” means describing what the reader would see if the reader were somehow able to hide in a corner or up a tree and actually watch the scene unfold. This works fine in a fight scene or a chase, when what’s going on is action. It gets a lot more problematic when most of the “action” is internal to various characters, and can only be “shown” through facial expression and body language.
The other big difficulty is, I think, a misunderstanding of some older terms of grammar that have mostly been superseded. When I was in grade school, what are now called “regular verbs” (that form the past tense by adding –ed or –d, such as owe/owed, hate/hated, burn/burned, jump/jumped) were known as “weak verbs,” while irregular verbs (that have a different past tense, such as run/ran, write/wrote, tell/told, feel/felt,) were known as “strong verbs.”
This obviously had nothing to do with the effect the verb in a sentence, or with whether the verb was an action or a state-of-being (there are both sorts on each list). It certainly had nothing to do with how desirable it might be to use one sort over the other. But “weak verb” sounds as if it ought to be a bad thing, and “strong verb” sounds as if it’ll make your sentences more effective, and both phrases are short and punchy. Over time, as regular/irregular replaced weak/strong in grammar terminology, I think people ran across or half-remembered the older terms and started misapplying them.
Another major mistake is in identifying “to be” as passive, weak, and undesirable, especially when it’s part of the verb form. I recently saw a paragraph written in present progressive tense (“They are now running along main street; the office workers are gaping as the race is going by…”) which someone had marked as being “too passive” while circling every “are” and “is” in the paragraph. The critique was half right; a whole paragraph in present continuous made for awkward reading.
But the problem was a tense problem, not a problem with overusing “to be,” and I nearly went ballistic when I saw the critic patting himself on the back for “changing weak verbs into strong ones” and “eliminating passive verbs” when not one verb changed. Only the tense did (“Now they run along main street; the office workers gape as the race goes by…”) Yes, the revised paragraph is much more readable and flows much better, but not for the reasons the critic gave. And in my experience, showing people a good fix and then giving them a bunch of incorrect information about what was done and why only ends up confusing them, at best. At worst, the writers fixate on the wrong things and end up making their own prose far worse than it was when they began.
What it all comes down to is that authors can’t simply apply a bunch of rules. They have to think – think about what they’re doing, what effect it has, and what effect they want it to have. Is this a chase scene? Then lots of action verbs are probably appropriate. Is it an internal monolog by the viewpoint character? Then there’ll probably be a few more state-of-being verbs. Is it the dialog of the radio announcer, commenting on a race? Then “Now they are running along main street…” probably is the right tense to use, and the author will have to find some other way of eliminating the awkwardness of too much present-progressive in a row.