How Dead Verbs are Killing your Writing | Duncan Koerber | Skillshare

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How Dead Verbs are Killing your Writing

teacher avatar Duncan Koerber, University Professor

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Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      Concrete Verbs


    • 4.

      Weak Verbs


    • 5.

      Dead Verbs


    • 6.

      Dead Verbs — Consequences


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About This Class

Like zombies, dead verbs are lurking in your fiction, creative non-fiction, work, and school writing — and it's time to eliminate them. Take this short course, which will help you understand the importance of verbs, from the author of Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

Verbs are the lifeblood of writing, but some verbs are better than others. In this course, learn which verbs are most effective, which are weak, and which are fully dead and contributing nothing to your writing. 

Introducing more good verbs to your writing can help avoid two things readers dislike: generalizations and a lack of forward movement. 

The objectives of this course are to help students understand the importance of the strong, concrete verb to the English language sentence, recognize the problems of dead verbsand apply the lesson to their own writing. No prerequisite knowledge or materials are required. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Duncan Koerber

University Professor


Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communication courses for the past 16 years at 8 Canadian universities to thousands of students.

Currently a full-time assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, Duncan Koerber worked for nearly 10 years in reporting and editing roles for the London Free Press, the Mississauga News, and the University of Toronto Medium. He has freelanced for magazines and newspapers, including the Toronto Star.

Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Available on Amazon, the book considers the seven most common errors (interfering factors) in writing and how to improve them (enhancing factors). His second book, Crisis Communicati... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Overview: this course outlines the importance of the verb in sentences. Indeed, it's the most important word. The course examines the best kinds of verbs concrete verbs, concrete verbs, air on one side of the spectrum. In the middle is weak. Verbs on the right is the absolute worst kind of verb. The dead verb all explained just what it is and the problems with using dead verbs in your writing. What are my expectations of? You will please watch all the videos first, to understand the distinctions between types of verbs. Then do the project listed below this video to try it out. It's important to try this out, or else you won't totally internalize the lesson. I'm available in the discussions, or you can send me a message and we can discuss any issues you're having with the course. 2. Beginnings: the typical sentence in the English language has a lot of parts of speech, and certainly the grammar books will tell you what those parts of speech are. But I believe that there's one word that stands out Mawr. The contributes more to making effective meaning, meaning that readers can easily understand. And that is the verb. Choosing the right verbs in your writing is extremely important because they provide the concrete meaning the readers need to see what you're trying to say to see it in their minds , eyes also, as we'll show you later in this set of lectures, verbs provide movement and in any kind of storytelling, even in academic writing. And I'll show you that later in these lectures, we need things to move along. Traditional grammar books make verbs really complicated, however, and they will describe different forms of verbs are verbs Come be intransitive Transitive past tense present. Tense future tense, progressive, tense, perfect, tense. Present. Perfect. Tense past. Perfect tense future. Perfect tense indicative. Moods and verbs. Imperative mood subjunctive moods. Active voice, passive voice. First person, second person, third person. Singular plural. There are a lot of variables with verbs, and I'm running out of breath here, just describing them that this set of lectures will not go into all of those forms and modifications of herbs. I'm just interested in the root verbs, whether it's present or simple, past tense. That's all we need to focus on to understand how wonderful verbs really are without verbs, sentences fall apart so they become what are called fragments. So if you've had an editor or maybe a professor Mark fragment when when grading your writing, perhaps you are missing a verb in the sentence. Now some great writers use fragments in journalism, often headlines of fragments, so someone will say something like New York's top 10 Most congested intersections. Now that's not a grammatically correct sentence because we're missing a verb there. But they present problems in a lot of beginning writers writing because you start getting this kind headlines style that has no flow. It doesn't have any forward movement. So what is a verb, I think, from Grade three English class. You probably thought of it as an action word, and that's partly truce of herbs are not just action words, and I want to relate a definition from the Chicago manual of style. They say that a verb can show the existence of a condition or state of being, such as emotion, that is, in addition to describing action. So there are actually two points or two sides to the verb. Some verbs air straight action like run, throw, walk hits those over concrete verbs and then we have other verbs, like Is Waas were, which are more about a condition or state of being, as the Chicago Manual of Style describes it. So keep that definition in mind. Because we go through these lectures on verbs, I'm going to talk about the different types of verbs and their effects on readers. 3. Concrete Verbs: If we want to make a great connection with our readers, we need to give the readers words that they immediately understand and can process can visualize. So when we're talking about verbs, the best verbs for most reading are called concrete verbs. So these are the everyday verbs, the verbs that we've known for most of our lives since we were Children. Thes air, not big business words or political words. Thes air. Just everyday words like run, hits, walk and throw. These are all tangible actions. So in the first lecture of this section, I suggested that 1/2 of the definition of a verb is an action word. And so this is the type of word that we want to get mawr into our writing. We want to increase the ratio of concrete verbs. Sometimes they're also called strong verbs to other words. So the more of these concrete verbs you can get into your sentence is the better for readability, for easy processing by readers. Because there's no misunderstanding with these verbs. There's no difficulty. The image pops up in the mind of the reader. The second you say run the second you say jump or throw or smack, there's no misunderstanding. Other verbs as well talk about later in these lectures are a little bit more difficult to process. They require maybe a little bit more education on the part of your readers, and they are often very abstract. They're not day today words. Now those words have a place in writing, so I wouldn't eliminate them completely. But we need to focus more on these concrete verbs and bring them in. Substitute them into other words whenever we can. During the editing process in my university classes on writing one of the quick exercises I like to do in the classroom is have every student in the class just shout out of her. So just shouted out and we try to go quickly through all 2030 40 students. And it might go something like this. And these air gang concrete everyday verbs. Dance paste, score, run, turn, read, pull, twist, right push, flip paint type burn. Poor hiss, scream, see slide prize show, jump, boil, cover, yell, peel, crush, cry, play, wipe, drink, greet, crunch, shout, slap, clean, climb, slip, smile. And I think by the end of listening to that really fast list going through every student in the classroom, you have a pretty good sense of what a concrete every day verb iss. On this slide, I've got some full sentence examples of concrete verb sentences, so let's look at a few of these. Mark runs past the police and jumps the fence. So the strong verbs or concrete verbs here are runs and jumps, runs and jumps. There's a nice parallel. Siri's there. The next one, Dr Seto wrote about the viability of the project. So wrote is an everyday verb that we all understand. The next one is, the police officer shouted at the protester. There can be no doubt about what the author means here shouted. Now, if I had just had a fragment, where was the police officer at the protester? The essence of the sentence isn't there. It's all about the verb. It's all about shouting. And then finally, in academic writing, you might say something like this. Study shows that the method worked, so those are all fine verbs that very few people will misunderstand as long as they have some experience in the English language. And that's instant meaning instant communication as well. When you're writing about lets a fiction or nonfiction creative nonfiction, you may want to bring in verbs that relate to the human senses. So we have opportunities to talk about the senses in our writing as well. Not just vision, but also the other four senses. If you're writing about being at the beach, you can talk about the crashing of the waves of the squawk of the Siegel's. If you're eating at a fine restaurant, you taste the heat of the spices of the forgiveness of the red wine. When you're a child, you felt things. You felt the warmth of your mother's hug, the pain of a scolding. So these are details that go beyond our typical obsession in writing with site. So what are some verbs, for example, with smell? Well, you could use words like walk oft or reek or sniff scent for touching. We have feel press, tickle, push, pull punch. For years we have great sounds like crackle, hum, echo, stream, whisper and grown. And then, obviously, for the sense of taste, we have things like lick, devour, eat, munch, gobble and chew. And when I created that list, I had a lot of trouble finding verbs for smell. It's actually very hard. People often describe smells with adjectives, but the other categories have many more examples of these. So what I would suggest is go back to a previous piece of writing that you have on file and look through it and identify the verb. See if you can see where those verbs are and make sure that their everyday verbs that anyone, even a child, I could understand. 4. Weak Verbs: In the previous lecture, I talked about the visual nature of concrete or strong verbs that we see them in our mind's eye right away. What about these verbs? I'm going to read a bunch of verbs. Oh, and tell me what you see in your mind. Anticipate, categorise, customize, incorporate, Utilize, inculcated, vocalize, personalize. What did you see in your mind's eye? Can you see these verbs? What images? What actions spring to mind. I think you probably saw very little in your mind's eye. Most readers instead feel a vague sense of these so called actions, but they're much more abstract than throw runs smack. Now. These words have purposes. I don't want to say ban weak verbs, and that's what I call these verbs, often ending in eight or eyes. We can't ban them from a writing, but if we overuse thumb, we make our writing more difficult for readers to process. And it all has to do with that abstract nous of those verbs. There's a real tendency in business writing and political writing to use these kinds of weak verbs. Now let's look at some examples on this slide. For example, the first sentence the accountant was authorized to manipulate the numbers. Or how about utilize the manual toe, understand how to administer the drug? Or Darren formulated a plan to revolutionize the industry by anticipating next steps. As you probably noticed him. As I noticed, as I was reading those of loud, They're heavier sentences. We start to feel these words weighing down on us, for example, for authorizing manipulate, you could just say allow an altar on alternative to utilize in. The second sentence is used these air a little bit better there a little bit more every day . Alternatives for formulate, as I had formulated in the third sentence include form design or create another form of weak verb is made. Specifically, people often use the phrase that involves the words made way, and I have noticed this actually over the past few years, prickly on the news. People use this phrase instead of saying Run, walk, drive. So let's look at some examples of this week for the first sentence reads. Jeannie makes her way to work. Well, we could just say Jeannie walks to work. And in most of these cases, the edit is simply to replace the week verb with a stronger alternative. Second sentence is who now made his way home to Edmonton. Or really, I want to know how he did that. So you could say Canal biked. Home to Edmonton Bike is a very strong verb that we all could see in our mind's eye. And then, finally, the traveler's face traffic as they made their way across the city what we could say, the traveler's face traffic as they drove across the city. Driving means more to me in my mind's eye than made their way. Made their way really doesn't invoke any images. In the same vein is a week for like came. So, for example, you could say something like the sculptor came into the class again, like made way. We don't really know how that person came into the class. It's non visual. It's not an image. It's very generic. A generic verb. Did the sculptor in a run or stumble or dash or stroll so maybe the author could edit the sentence from the sculptor came into class to this, the sculptor stumbled into class, ricocheted across the room and grab the chair for support. Now I can see those verbs Aiken. See? Stumbled. I can see ricocheted, I can see grabbed. That's instant communication with those very strong verbs. So the lesson here is simply to go back to a piece of writing and edit it to bring those weak verbs up to a strong concrete level as often as you can. Now, you won't always be able to do this, but you need to. As with all of these editing techniques to test your verbs test, see if they are working and see if you can come up with a simpler, more straightforward version. 5. Dead Verbs: the worst kind of urban this is so common in people's writing is the dead verb, thes verbs, air lifeless. And that is because they do not evoke any images or any movement in the minds of your readers. So they stop movement cold, the most common dead verb. Well, that would be to be if you know, from your verb conjugation to be comes in. The forms of is are was, were those of the main forms you'll see, and these get peppered throughout the writing of almost all writers at the draft stage. So before, when I said something like Punch a great concrete verb, you immediately could visualize that if I'm in a crowded theater and I see a fire and I yell run, everyone knows, as long as they understand English what to do. They don't even need a full sentence. They know run means to get the heck out of that theater. But what happens if I say to you instead of run? Waas were is, are what do you see in your mind's eye while I see nothing? It's a condition or state of being, as I defined some types of verbs earlier in the set of lectures. So sometimes we can fall back on dead verbs as a habit, and we need to get this habit out of our writing in the editing, a revision process. So here four sentences and I want to show what could be done with these sentences. The boy is hungry well, to make this into a concrete, strong verb type of sentence, you could say something like the boy wolf down his first meal in three days. I think the verb wolf is a really interesting one and says a lot more than is. And also we get a feeling there that he is hungry through that verb without us having to really come out and say that. And if you can show what the boys feeling rather than just telling us he's hungry, that's great writing now. The 2nd 1 is the dog was sick so that dead verb waas Well, we don't really know specifically the sickness, but you could say something like the dog puked all over the white carpet. So here that strong ever puked. We all know what's going on here, and we also know the kind of higher level meaning going on with the strong verb in that is the dog is sick. The next one somebody might right. You know, I was a risk taker, but what does that really mean? I mean, that's very abstract, is very general, and it's facilitated by that dad verb. But you could say something like all weekend, I skydived and bungee jumped. So the verbs there skydiving and bungee jumped. Those are pretty risky endeavors. And I think most people would read off that sentence with strong verbs, the concrete verbs to know that this person's a risk taker, they'd make that assessment. If you can let your reader do the judgments for you, you're involving them in the writing process, the reading process rather than telling them the person was a risk taker. And then finally, for example, somebody could say the concept was difficult. So was is our dead for well, you could say something like the concept stumped students and scholars alike. So in all the four revised versions, I think we immediately see those actions instead of the dead verb versions. So far, I've been dealing with examples that sound like they're coming from fiction or creative nonfiction, but you could also apply this to academia. You can say something like in this example, someone writes. The idea of community was growing in the minds of writers in the 19 twenties, so the dead verb there is Waas, in this case was causes us to take a dead verb further and add i N g on a very strong roots . So the word grow is a nice concrete every day verb, but it's shackled with those i n g. Endings. So the revision of this while you could say the idea of community grew in the minds of writers in the 19 twenties that places the emphasis on the Verbund, not waas or the I N G. Some other examples of dead verbs the verb could I have to see this and people's writing. They say something like, I sat in the forest with my binoculars. I looked around for the rare black and white woodpecker. I could hear its distinctive pecks on a nearby tree so here could distracts from the verb here. If you just say I hear its distinctive pecs, that's the same thing, and it focuses the mind in the reader on the hearing not that could another example. My uncle has a dog could be revised to something like my uncle owns a dog or the boys had a plan. You could just change it to the boys. Created a plan, and they created is a little bit better. Not as strong as run through our hit, but you'll find alternatives are not always that simple. 6. Dead Verbs — Consequences: So some people ask me whether editing these verbs changing verbs from abstract to concrete from dead to concrete really makes a big difference, and I review It does for two reasons. So there are some greater consequences to using a lot of thes either weak or dead verbs in your writing. One is the tendency to generalize. Dead verbs like to be is was. Where are they allow us to just generalize. They let us off the hook for having to make very detailed meaning for readers. And second, there's often a lack of movement in the plot for the exposition. If you're reading in essay, I can look across a piece of document. And if I see lots of dead verbs, I can already tell there's a problem here with either that generalization or that movement . So on the point of generalization, imagine if I wrote something like my father was angry, so here we have the dead verb was, and we have the adjective angry. But I am one step removed in this sentence from the rial anger of this person's father. I don't feel it. I don't experience it. It's like a summary of anger, so How could you fix this? And again, it involves just turning back to concrete verbs. Imagine this scene about the father. My father took the phone from his ear and threw it against the wall. He slammed his fist down on the table and screamed. So here we get to feel anger of this Father rather than the summary version, which was my father was angry in the detailed version. Use a lot of concrete verbs that is anger. So that's how you could convert generalization to specificity. Now the second point about stopping action. The overuse of those verbs puts more emphasis on conditions or states of being, as I described in the definition of a verb earlier in these lectures. So dead verbs inherently focusing on conditions of states of being stop action, the eliminate action that's inherent in those words. Let's look at an example of a paragraph full of dead verbs. So read this slide through. You might want to pause it and then I'll discuss it. So the issue here in this paragraph is not grammar, spelling it simply, ah, poor style with dead verbs. There's nothing happening here. It's a summary of feelings and actions, but we need to get those concrete verbs in it. And this is the revised version. So I'll let you pause this video and read through the revised version of this story with Sameer and Andrea. So I think you can see in the revised version there I've placed in. I've simply added in strong verbs where the dead verbs were and they become the focus. They start to move things along. Things happen to these characters. It's on a summary anymore. It's really life. I'm right there in the room with these people. I'm not kind of feeling distant from them. It's much more detailed now. Some students as me. Well, this is great for fiction or creative nonfiction. Can you do this in academic writing or business writing? Well, of course you can. It's a little bit harder because we don't often use strong verbs in academic writing. We don't say throw, hit, run, walk in our academic papers or a business writing. But for example, you could say something like the two scholars were in agreement that might come up in any kind of writing, or you could change it to the two scholars agreed and agreed, is a pretty strong verb. Now imagine this one in a communications essay. Marshall McLuhan was the inventor of the terms hot and cold media, not a bad sentence. It's not awful, but it has a dead verb. So we could say something like Marshall McLuhan invented the terms Hot and cold Media, invented again, is not as strong as run or throw or walk. It is necessarily evoke, in our minds the seam images. But I think it's better than the deadest verb, which is waas in academic or business writing. You may have to search a little bit harder to find concrete verbs, and some of them might be things like affirms or argues. Articulates asserts, attacks claims, offers hints, thinks shows confirms champions Celebrates, denounces, mocks, allows confesses. So there are some options there for writing that is not necessarily rooted in the everyday world as fiction or creative nonfiction often is. So go back to your writing with these ideas in mind and just make sure that you're moving your pieces of writing in whatever genre along with concrete verbs. And it might be a symbol as crossing out bad dead Verbund dropping in a strong one