When I write, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about verbs. I’ll often pause, mid-sentence, staring blankly into the distance, considering the way a verb sounds in combination with the surrounding words, its context in our language outside of the sentence I’m trying to use it in, and whether or not it captures the tone I want for a specific section. I’ve lost hours to mulling over and mashing specific words into verb shaped holes. I’ll sometimes swap in seven or eight synonyms looking for just the right verb, that one jumble of letters that makes the most sense logically, syntactically, and holistically.
So it comes as no surprise that when I edit a peer’s writing, the first thing I look at are verbs. I’ve noticed that a lot of writers tend to put emphasis on their adverbs and adjectives, trying to capture action, personality, and setting with exposition and direct description. While this can work, it often encourages lazy verbs, who, with a just a gentle nudge and a dash of motivation, could be doing a lot more work in the sentence.
Two Flavors of Verbs
If you pull up the definition of a verb in a dictionary, you’ll find “intrans” or “trans” next to it. Sometimes it will say “used without an object” or “used with an object” instead, but it fundamentally means the same thing. These grammatically designate “intransitive” and “transitive,” or more simply, if the verb functions with a direct object or not. Practically, it tells you what kind of relationship the verb has with the subject of the sentence.
An intransitive verb does not take a direct object, and acts as a descriptor for the subject: “I ran.” All the verb does it tell the reader what action the subject took. Nothing more, nothing less.
A transitive verb does take a direct object, and explains how, why, or what the subject did: “I ran the marathon.” This verb has an object (marathon) that receives, and explains, the action of the sentence.
Pretty subtle difference, right? Subtle, but very important. An intransitive verb, even when coupled with prepositions or other adornment (“I ran to the end of the block.”) still only describes, and does little to move the narrative forward. A transitive verb, conversely, unfolds an explicit action or event, and as its name implies, transfers action onto the direct object, propelling your story forward.
Note: There are verbs that can be both intransitive and transitive, depending on context. I used, “to run” above, as an example, but there are many others.
Why does it matter?
Engaging writing captures a reader’s attention and holds onto it fiercely. It needs the reader’s engagement to live. If someone gets distracted or bored and stops reading, the piece might as well not exist. Your writing dies if no one reads it. ::drama intensifies::
Verb use impacts the pacing of a story. Have you ever read a piece of writing, that while topically and thematically fascinating, seemed to drag on and on, and could barely hold your attention? If you analyze the writing, you’ll probably find that the author used a lot of intransitive verbs. There is nothing inherently wrong with these verbs, and at times they are the best choice for a sentence, but they do have the effect of slowing down the natural movement of writing.
Reading is a fluid journey. Our brains have been trained to recognize this transference of action from verb to direct object automatically, but that also means that if we don’t subconsciously see it, we’re likely to lose interest in what we’re reading.
Think of your story or essay like a series of white water rapids propelling your reader down a river, each sentence flowing from the previous one, cascading across the page as a torrent of words. Each intransitive verb is like a rock in the way of the flow, slowing the water down, forcing your reader to linger there for a moment before moving on. If you put too many rocks in the reader’s path, the flow will slow to a trickle, or maybe even stop, prematurely ending your reader’s journey to the end of your piece.
Transitive verbs keep the flow consistent, unbroken, and sweep your reader down the river of words with the energy and enthusiasm of an unhindered waterfall.
To Be, Is, Was
While normal intransitive verbs can be troublesome, the single most common intransitive error comes from the verb, “to be.”
It makes sense. “To be” is our existential default, how we describe the delicate intricacies of what it means to be human, how we articulate our feelings and describe ourselves to others. It’s a wonderful, necessary verb, with one fatal flaw. “To be” is always intransitive. It’s somewhat of a grammatical anomaly; “to be” sets up a comparison with the subject and a subject compliment (not a direct object), and as a result, does nothing but offer flat description. Because of this odd behavior, “is,” and “was” never move a story forward.
“Alex is a writer.”
In this sentence, “is” acts as an equals sign for the subject (Alex) and the subject compliment (a writer). Alex = a writer. The sentence contains no action. It serves only to describe the subject, and plant some exposition in the piece. The problem is that the verb – arguably the heart of the sentence – is doing no work, floating idly in the middle, like it’s on vacation or something.
Why waste a perfectly good verb?
Let’s rewrite that sentence with a transitive verb:
“Alex writes essays.”
We still capture the idea that Alex is a writer, but now we get more information in the form of the direct object (essays), and know what he writes. The verb works hard here, giving us information about the subject, while simultaneously providing action. Alex actively writes essays, doesn’t just exists two-dimensionally as a writer. The transitive form (in this admittedly simple example) conveys more information than its intransitive counterpart, and makes our monkey brains happy by using language’s natural propensity to keep rolling onward.
To Edit, To Revise
Scrutinize your verbs. When you write a sentence, look to see what action the sentence tries to convey, and then see if your verb accurately portrays that. You might subconsciously be using a form of “to be” because it sounds natural, not realizing that you’re slowing down your own narrative and holding a reader back.
Do a search for “is” and “was” and see if you’re using them as “filler verbs” where a more appropriate transitive verb might work better. Intransitive verbs do serve a purpose, and there are times when you intentionally want to slow your reader down, either to delay the payoff of a certain scene, or to have them really focus on a certain detail or description. “To be” is a great, unfortunately overused verb, partly because it’s so malleable, partly because few writers stop to check if the verb they’ve used is contextually a “best-fit.”
If you can start including more transitive verbs, you’ll almost certainly improve the flow and pacing of your writing, and keep a reader’s attention from wandering off to cat videos. I’d say, given how many cat videos I find myself watching daily, that’s a win.