Constance Hale on the Power of Verbs

I came across an interview recently with Constance Hale published in The Writer magazine that re-enforced a core belief: strong verbs are the key to powerful writing. An author, grammar expert and teacher, Hale spoke about her latest book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. Verbs are the workhorses of fiction writing, or as Hale put it in the introduction to her book, “Verbs put action in scenes, show eccentricity in characters, and convey drama in plots.”

The right verb is the key to a making a sentence sing. “The verb determines the roles, or designated positions, of all the other words in the sentence…But verbs do more than just dominate sentences. Ask a cop whether he’d prefer to know the color of a suspect’s sweatshirt, or the way he walked and talked.”

In an April 6, 2012 interview published in The New York Times, Hale said, “Verbs kick-start sentences. Without them, words would simply cluster together in suspended animation. We often call them action words, but verbs can also carry sentiments (love, fear, lust, disgust), hint at cognition (realize, know, recognize), bind ideas together (falsify, prove, hypothesize), assert possession (own, have) and conjure existence itself (is, are).”

Hale breaks down verbs into two main categories: static (passive) and dynamic (active). “Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs—and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets, and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he can gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger, or sashay?”

Let’s compare these two sentences:

She impressed me. (dull)

She dazzled me. (better)

Or these sentences:

He moved rapidly toward the gunman.

He lunged at the gunman.

“Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forego adverbs. Many of those modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway,” Hale said.

Static verbs establish a relationship of equals between the subject of a sentence and its complement. Think of those verbs as quiet equal signs, holding the subject and predicate in delicate equilibrium.”

“Verbs can make or break your writing, so consider them carefully in every sentence you write. Do you want to sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it? Go ahead, use is. Do you want to plunge your subject into a little drama. Go dynamic. Whichever you select, give your readers language that makes them eager for the next sentence.”

Hale, author of two grammar books before her current release, said she was motivated to write her latest book when people asked her what was the one thing they could do to improve their writing. “Look at your verbs.” She said. “When you’re stopping to think about what word you’re using, and looking for a better word, your writing becomes more precise, more dramatic or visual. And if you are really focusing on the subject-verb relationship.”

I leave you with these four principles from The Writer article:

  • Understand subjects and predicates. “We need a subject (person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about) and a predicate (expressing the action, condition or effect on the subject).
  • Be precise. Ask yourself if you’ve chosen the best verb. “It’s about writing deep and striking with verve.”
  • Listen for music and rhythm.
  • Avoid loosey-goosey beginnings.

How do you select the best verbs?





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4 responses to “Constance Hale on the Power of Verbs

  1. Good writing does take a healthy dose of verb awareness and creativity. Have fun with those words! Great post and reminder.

  2. Julie,
    Thanks for your comment. The trick is finding just the right verb–easier said than done. Thanks again.

  3. constancehale

    Hi, there, CG. (Not sure if that’s how people call you, but…) I just stumbled upon this post and, needless to say, loved it.

    You ask, “How do you select the best verbs”? What I do is write the first draft without worrying about the verbs too much. Then I go back and in the revising take a look at what I’ve got on the page. I circle all the forms of “to be” and see if I can recast the sentence, although if the energy in the line is in the nouns and adjectives, I believe it’s OK to have a quiet verb.

    For the dynamic verbs (as I call them), I do a little exercise in the margins, jotting down all the synonyms that come to mind and trying to find something less generic, more precise, maybe more visual or surprising. Then, if I’m not quite satisfied, or if I really want to knock it out of the park, I go to the thesaurus. I do this *as a practice.* I find that the more I observe the practice, the better my mental thesaurus gets. I unconsciously start with better verbs, and the verbs jotted in the margin are stronger.

    Let me know if you’d like to use an excerpt from Vex on your site, or maybe use something from my Web site:



    • Constance, I am so glad you liked this post. Your advice about getting rid of all forms of “to be” is right on target. I went through my current manuscript and used the Find and Replace feature. I found so many uses of that verb form and replaced them all, one by one. It is so easy to get lazy and use a weak verb. It takes focus and deliberate action to find the right verb. Thanks for stopping by!

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