Verbs: The Shapeshifters of Language
Updated: May 23, 2020
Make no mistake, writers. Verbs are your friends.
Your best word friends.
Verbs are more fabulous, more flamboyant, more exciting, more interesting, more versatile, more accommodating and more reliable than any other word category.
Verbs keep your narrative moving.
Verbs your sentences moseying along sidewalks like a swaggering hipster . . .
. . . Scuttling down dark alleyways like a thief.
Verbs are the stars of your narrative show: without them, your stories would flop, not perform.
Your stories would stand still, desiccate, rot, corpse on the page.
But choose them with care and watch how your writing animates. Observe how they carry your readers to Word Heaven.
Treat them with contempt and they will make a mockery of you.
So why then, this veneration and warning both? Why this elevation of verbs above their grammatical peers?
Why indeed give them, you may ask, a blog post all their own?
Put simply: in narrative fiction, your every sentence is built around the verb.
Statements and exclamatory sentences notwithstanding, commands and questions aside - of the three constituent parts that string together to provide your narrative sentence meaning and direction – subject, verb, object - to make them not only complete but astonishing, verbs are as crucial to their structure and beauty as is DNA to life.
Whereas nouns - while they might profit from equal billing on your narrative posters - nouns are fixed, inflexible, set in concrete. They are the leopards that cannot change their spots.
A bathtub can never become a ship (save in the imagination of a child).
A humble pencil can never rise to become a Princely fountain pen, nor a Kingly quill.
Unless by some monstrous, evolutionary genetic mutation, a sweetly chirruping herbivorous bird is unlikely overnight to return to the form of a carnivorous Velociraptor. (Sorry, paleontologists.)
But verbs - verbs are far more complex and adaptable. Verbs can only work with a conceptual understanding that is locked in our collective memory of experiences; work only with physics, cause and effect, time and events.
A boat cannot sail along our Earthly globe, only around it.
Verbs are involved in every single movement on the page. For
their very function is to describe something that has happened, or will happen, or is happening right here and now – such as this blogger tap-tap-tapping letters on a keyboard to form the very wonderful sentences you are reading before your hungry eyes.
Verbs carry nouns and pronouns. Verbs provide them a clarifying purpose by means of putting him or her or them or it into the action. Whatever the pretence of a writing tool, neither a pencil nor a fountain pen can function alone. That is, independent of a vehicle, without a conveyor.
In realist literature, the following will never be said:
“The pencil wrote a poetic love letter to the
Why? Because the pencil (object¹) requires a person or thing (subject²) to perform (verb/action³) the physical work:
“Cyrano de Bergerac² used a feather- quill¹ to write³ a letter
to Roxanne.” (note: not a quote lifted from Edmond Rostand’s text.)
Yes, just like that.
So, dear reader, dear writer, can you now start to see why verbs sit above nouns in the grammatical hierarchy? Why I'm bigging-up your wordfriend bestie?
Let’s zoom-in closer.
Let's demonstrate what verbs can do that no other grammatical device can.
Let's show you their sleight-of-hand trickery.
Prepostions, articles, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, nouns and pronouns - amongst these word categories, only verbs are uniquely conjurable and adaptable according to requirement. Only verbs can change to meet the needs of their semantic environment.
Only verbs can shapeshift.
Want a verb to slyly shift from the present to the past – suffix it with -ed. Now it has shift-ed.
Or, in the case of irregular verbs, tweak its vowels – he sings, she sang, they had sung.
Want to let your reader witness something in motion - fasten -ing on the end - the choir is sing-ing.
Try any of these with a noun. Go on, just try.
So magnificently synonymous and furtively nuanced are verbs in meaning and movement, the way a sentence might be read can alter merely by swapping one wordfriend for a closely aligned other.
In the case of the gifted penman (and swordsman) Cyrano (as exampled above), we could insert into the sentence in place of "write" any one of the following:
scribble, scrawl, jot, note, compose, pen, draft,
scribe or transcribe, knocks off, dashes out, puts down,
and so on -
and while the nub of the sentence remains the same in its most basic meaning, the way in which Cyrano writes the letter can be inferred very differently. Showing, perhaps, a change of intent. Or describing the state of his emotion without having to say it explicitly.
Like this: if we see Cyrano composing the letter, we might say his intention appears to be thoughtful and considerate; but if he is scrawling the letter, this implies he writes quickly, rashly, maybe out of anger. Or in lovelorn desperation.
It is, then, this versatility, this creativity, that makes verbs so indispensible to a writer. When one doesn’t quite fit or make the grade, another is always ready to step in.
If we were to get lowdown and dirty about this, adjust the microscope of examination to its most base level, we could look at descriptive synonyms for bodily functions. For there are - let's say a pleasing - number of ways in which we can “have sex”.
Many words that show how we can “defecate” and “urinate.”
And when it comes to getting "drunk", there is close to a staggering, giddy, head-swooning 3000 verbs and verb-phrases to chose from.
(If you teach creative writing, you could make a game of this in a workshop, and challenge writers to scribble down as many synonyms for any of the above as possible in 5 minutes, starting . . . now.)
That verbs describing a single action can be so multitudinous are a Heaven-sent gift to a writer - but they can also be their worst enemy.
For example, there is an almost inexhaustible number of words by which we can exchange for the verb “Said”.
I'll show you some:
Barked - to speak or shout sharply
Bellowed - to roar, to cry out loudly in anger or fear
Cackled - to laugh cynically or sneer; implies sinister intent
Cried - to call for help, to shout, to sob, to weep
Croaked - to make a sound like a frog or raven, to talk dismally
Declaimed - to speak in a pompous way or deliver a tirade
Drawled - to speak in a way that prolongs the vowels
Joked - to make a joke
Mumbled - to utter inarticulate or almost inaudible sounds
Murmured - to speak in a low, indistinct voice
Muttered - to speak angry or discontented words in a low, indistinct voice
Roared - to utter a loud, deep sound
Scolded - to find fault with angrily
Shouted - to make a loud cry or call
Shrieked - to make a loud, piercing cry or sound
Wailed - to express grief or pain through long, loud cries
Whispered - to speak softly, especially to avoid being overheard
And trust me, there are many, many more besides.
But, as I've already intimated, that's neither necessarily a good nor a helpful thing.
In fact, you might even say, "Isn’t it ironic" (no, literally ironic, Alanis), that while we have so much choice in this, received wisdom advises that you should almost always stick to a simple and humble "Said". Yep, in almost every instance he said, she said, will suffice.
The only time you might want to search about for an alternative is when the meaning isn’t obvious in the dialogue. Such as when an intended emotional response can be ambiguous or not present at all.
Such as in this (fabricated!) sarcastic comment.
“Yeah, I think your Writing-Class Blog is really
So unless you want to appear an amateurish writing fool, take the advice.
There are, though, writers that are in a league of their own when it comes to finding new uses for old and established verbs.
In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan shows us a car “peeling” down the road in California(the image of tyres slowly unsticking from hot tarmacadam is perfect, almost onomatopoeic); and then a character having “hustled” washing-up into the sink.
While David Foster Wallace (RIP) describes how water “heals” again after something is thrown into it. That word, to my mind, is an inspired, poetic choice.
When you get it so spot-on like this, when you find just-the-right verb, one that describes an action in a new and original way, you have struck writers’ gold.
In this, my irises bloom and my brain wshes with a colour of delight and envy whenever I alight upon such a well-chosen verb. And as did I with those examples above, I bury the word, along with its context, deep in my memory and pick it out and drop it into a sentence in an act of guiltless (mis)appropriation when my ego urges me to look like a smarty-pants.
Oh, come on.
We all borrow from one another, don't we?
Okay. Let’s call it “intercontextualisation”, then, and rather than determining it as the plagiarism of your favourite author's words, it becomes a reverential homage.
It’s only semantics, after all.
Now let me end with a serious word of caution, though.
Stealing is shameful enough. Heavy-handedness is unforgivable.
“January juggernauted us into the New Year.”
WtAf? Never mind the clunky alliteration of my once-tested sentence - and do note the noun-made-verb (it can happen: to Google, to Hoover. Get it?), but a cold and wintry month juggernauting?
Too-strong a verb?
Take good heed, and good care, my writerly comrades, for you have been warned.
And now time for a quick exit. Please, excuse me, then, while I shapeshift, pull on my wings, erect their feathers on my back and fly the heck outta here . . .
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