2.4 The Importance of Verbs

Much of the style advice given so far revolves around the importance of verbs. Think of your sentence as a machine, and the verb as the engine that makes the machine work. Like machines, sentences can function efficiently or inefficiently, and the use of a strong verb is one way to make them work effectively. Here are some key principles regarding the effective use of verbs in your sentences. While effective sentences may occasionally deviate from the suggestions in this list, try to follow these guidelines as often as possible:

  • Keep the subject and the verb close together; avoid separating them with words or phrases that could create confusion.
  • Place the verb near the beginning of the sentence (and close to the subject).
  • Maintain a high verb/word ratio in your sentence.
  • Opt for active verb constructions over passive ones.
  • Avoid “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be).
  • Try to turn nominalizations (abstract nouns) back into verbs.

Use the verb strength chart in Table 2.4.1 as a guide to “elevate” weaker verbs (or words with implied action) in a sentence to stronger forms.

Table 2.4.1 Verb strength chart
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Verb Forms Verb Strength Examples



Maintain the machine properly!

Write the report!

Active Indicative*

(S → V)

He maintains the machine regularly.

She writes reports frequently.

Active conditional

She would maintain the machine if he would let her.

He would write reports if he had more training.

Gerunds ( __ -ing)

Infinitives (to ___)

(these do not function as verbs in your sentence; actual verbs are highlighted in yellow)

While maintaining the machine, he gets quite dirty.

Report writing takes skill.

It takes a lot of time to maintain this machine.

To write effectively, one must get a sense of the audience.

Passive   (S ← V)

Passive Conditional

The machine is maintained by him.

It would be maintained by her if…

The report was written by her.

Reports would be written by him if…

Nominalizations (verbs turned into abstract nouns)

Participles (nouns or adjectives that used to be verbs)

Machine maintenance is dirty work.

A well-maintained machine is a thing of beauty.

Written work must be free of errors.

While you are not likely to use the command form very often, unless you are writing instructions, the second strongest form, Active Indicative, is the one you want to use most often (say, in about 80% of your sentences).


Knowledge Check


Part of the skill of using active verbs lies in choosing the verbs that precisely describe the action you want to convey. English speakers have become somewhat lazy in choosing a small selection of verbs most of the time (to be, to do, to get, to make, to have, to put); as a result, these often-used verbs have come to have so many possible meanings that they are almost meaningless. Try looking up “make” or “have” in the dictionary; you will see pages and pages of possible meanings! Whenever possible, avoid these bland verbs and use more precise, descriptive verbs, as indicated in Table 2.4.2.

Table 2.4.2 Bland vs. descriptive verbs
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Bland Verbs Descriptive Verbs

Signal Verbs:

Talks about

Describe the rhetorical purpose behind what the author/speaker “says”:

Explains, clarifies
Describes, illustrates
Claims, argues, maintains
Asserts, stresses, emphasizes
Recommends, urges, suggests

Is, are, was, were being been

Is verb-ing

Instead of indicating what or how something “is,” describe what it DOES, by choosing a precise, active verb.

Replace progressive form (is ___ing) with the indicative form

She is describing She describes

Get, gets

Usually too colloquial (or passive); instead you could use more specific verbs such as

Become, acquire, obtain, receive, prepare, achieve, earn, contract, catch, understand, appreciate, etc.

Do, does

Avoid using the emphatic tense in formal writing:

It does work →  it works.

I do crack when I see apostrophe errors → I crack when I see apostrophe errors.

Instead:  Perform, prepare, complete, etc.

Has, have

Has to, have to

This verb has many potential meanings! Try to find a more specific verb that “have/has” or “has to”:

  • She owns a car
  • They consume/eat a meal
  • The product includes many optional features
  • The process entails several steps

Instead of “have to” try:  Must, require, need, etc.


Build, construct, erect, devise, create, design, manufacture, produce, prepare, earn, etc.

Make a recommendation → recommend
Make a promise → promise
Make a plan → plan

For more detailed information on using signal verbs when introducing quotations, see Chapter 6.2: Integrating Source Evidence into Your Writing.


Knowledge Check


EXERCISE 2.4.1 Improve the following sentences by elevating the verb and cutting clutter

  1. An investigation of the issue has been conducted by her.
  2. His task is regional database systems troubleshooting handbook preparation.
  3. While a recommendation has been made by the committee, an agreement to increase the budget will have to be approved by the committee.

EXERCISE 2.4.2 Revision practice

The following paragraph on The Effects of Energy Drinks does not conform to the 7Cs and contains far too many “to be” verbs. Revise this paragraph so that it has a clear topic sentence, coherent transitions, correct grammar, and concise phrasing. In particular, try to eliminate all “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be), and rephrase using strong, descriptive, active verbs. The first 7 are highlighted for you. Try to cut the word count (260) in half.

Energy Drinks are able to be consumed in many varied and different ways by people all over the world. Moreover, drinking these energy drinks is able to provide people in today’s society with the helpful benefits of increased awareness and energy. Besides, even though there are enhancements that may be present from drinking an energy drink, the negative side effects are posing more of a threat to a person than the energy boost that is able to be achieved. In a survey that was taken in the United States at an American university, it was reported that fifty one percent of participants were consuming greater than three energy drinks each month in the semester [1]. Looking at this statistic, it can be seen that a majority of students in university are drinking energy a large amount of drinks on a very regular basis. Which can be the cause of some health problems experienced by students. In the same study, it was also shown that energy drinks are capable of helping to increase energy and athletic endurance; for those who drank it. Despite the fact that there are some benefits to be had from drinking energy drinks, there is the problem of the negative side affects that are caused by the drinking of these energy drinks. However, the side affects that were commonly reported in the study are: headaches, and “energy crashes” (Smith 5). Being a potentially more severe problem than the minor problems of headaches and “crashes;” there is definitely the possibility of people which are becoming addicted to caffeine.

After trying the exercise, click on the link below to compare your revision to effective revisions of this passage done by other students:

Sample Revisions of Exercise 2.4.2 (.docx)

Table 2.4.3 sums up many key characteristics of effective professional style that you should try to avoid (poor style) and implement (effective style) while writing technical documents.

Table 2.4.3 Key characteristics of effective professional style
Poor Style Effective Style
Low VERB/WORD ratio per sentence High VERB/WORD ratio per sentence
Excessive ‘is/are’ verbs Concrete, descriptive verbs
Excessive passive verb constructions Active verb constructions
Abstract or vague nouns Concrete and specific nouns
Many prepositional phrases Few prepositional phrases
Subject and verb are separated by words or phrases Subject and verb are close together
Verb is near the end of the sentence Verb is near the beginning of the sentence
Main idea (subject-verb relationship) is difficult to find Main idea is clear
Sentence must be read more than once to understand it Meaning is clear the first time you read it
Long, rambling sentences Precise, specific sentences


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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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