Six impossible things

Weak and Strong?

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The other big difficulty is, I think, a misunderstanding of some older terms of grammar that have mostly been superseded.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.

  1. It bothers me so much when people misuse those terms. A “tense” problem is not the same thing as an “adverb” problem. A lot of new writers don’t understand the difference though.

  2. “They are now running along main street; the office workers are gaping as the race is going by…”

    Heh. Changing this in the story may have worked, but they better not change

    “Now the whole damn bus is cheering,
    And I can’t believe I see,
    A hundred yellow ribbons ’round the ole oak tree.”

  3. Good grief! Who cooked up that strong/weak verb business? I was in grade school at pretty much the same time you were and don’t remember ever hearing anything except regular/irregular. Mind you, I was learning English, rather than American, but even so…

  4. I remember strong and weak verbs; they are also called that in German.

    The passive voice is being highly favoured by me.

  5. @Louis Strong/weak verbs comes from scholars working on other languages in the Germanic language family, where the verb forms aren’t regular/irregular, there are actually just different categories with different regular tense forms. English used to have this, but it forgot them, and now the ‘strong’ verbs are only common verbs where people remember the odd tense forms. (And then things like ‘dove’ which people made up later).

    One interesting thing I’ve learned about Japanese is that their verbs are either process action verbs – like eat, but not like hit, or they’re change of state verbs – like marry, or promise. In english we usually use the ‘get + participle’ construction to do the change of state – get married, get pregnant, get lost, but in Japanese that’s the base form of the verb. Even go and come are like that – almost more like depart and arrive. So, in order to say that someone is in a state of something – like a state of having arrived or being married, you use the progressive construction.
    Since every language has people telling other speakers that they’re doing it wrong, I don’t doubt that someone has said ‘use better verbs!’ But it just reminds me of how difficult it is to give advice on grammar when you don’t actually know what the structures mean and what it is that the author is trying to do.

  6. I still remember the crits where the critique complained about the use of passive voice. One did in the story where I had used it once. (Perhaps I had overused the progressive voice, but that’s another kettle of fish.) Another actually backtracked and said of the passage, accused of being in the passive voice, “At least, not much is happening.”

    I warn people making critiques that yes, you can be right or wrong, if you venture into criticizing grammar, and that passive voice and run-on sentences are the two big ones.

  7. Two of the terms I saw occasionally used in alt.usage.english that make fun of the my-preferences-are-the-rules sorts are:

    hyphenator: someone who uses hyphens in words

    hyphen-hater: someone who does not like using hyphens in words

    Maybe we could add a triplet with the first two having their usual meanings and the third a new term:

    active voice
    passive voice
    passive-aggressive voice: what those whiny critics use all too often / what is used by those whiny critics all too often

  8. Heh. I once had a reader try to correct me for having a sentence in “passive tense”. The lengths some people will go to to invent rules to accuse other people of breaking is truly amazing.

  9. Instead of strong verbs, these people usually are advocating more particular verbs. Instead of walked, a writer might use strode, staggered, skedaddled, minced, etc. The more unusual verbs must not be used too often, or the effect becomes comic.

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