On Verbs: Sink or Swim—or Walk?

Trust your verbs. Always—and if you find that you can’t trust them, fire them and get new ones. You can’t have a sentence without a verb. Verbs are not always the showiest part of a sentence, not always the part of your writing that the reader walks away remembering, but they are the hub around which all the other parts of the sentence turn. To make a comparison to music, verbs are like the chords in a song, the essential foundation that gives just the right tension and shading to the ear-catching melody of nouns and adjectives.

The fundamental importance of verb choice is sometimes hard to see clearly unless you compare the disastrous effects of the wrong verb to the strong but flexible structure given by the right verbs. To see some verbs in action, let’s look at a poem by Billy Collins. He’s one of my favorite poets—the clarity and accessibility of his word choice often stands in sharp contrast to the surprising journeys his images take the reader on.

 

Walking Across the Atlantic

Billy Collins

 

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach

before stepping onto the first wave.

 

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic

thinking about Spain,

checking for whales, waterspouts.

 

I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

 

But for now I try to imagine what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

 

(from Sailing Alone Around the Room)

 

Lovely little poem, don’t you think? So we can contrast the firm, flexible structure made by good verbs with the chaos, or inflexible, impenetrable wordiness, caused by bad and unhelpful ones, let’s ruin this poem by just changing some of the verbs to similar, but much less effective, ones. With apologies to Collins:

 

Strolling Across the Atlantic

 

I stand waiting for the holiday crowd to vacate the beach

before hopping onto the first wave.

 

Soon I am strolling across the Atlantic

dreaming about Spain,

watching for whales, waterspouts.

 

I feel the water keeping up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will snooze on its rocking surface.

 

But for now I try to visualize what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet showing up suddenly and vanishing.

 

Well, yuck, right? It’s not meaningless, but it’s not poetry any more. Everything’s either gone flat, or gone silly. See how “stand waiting” adds an unnecessary word and changes the simple, deft stroke of “wait” to a two-word phrase with a clunky –ing ending? See how “strolling,” which might appeal to us at first as a more interesting action than “walking,” just made things far too silly and egotistical, in contrast to the determined but everyday tone that the original poem had with “walking”? See how “watching” in the second stanza gave the narrator an over-anxious Captain Ahab attitude, in addition to adding a third word beginning with ‘w’ to that line, overwhelming the subtle, wispy alliteration Collins intended with “whales, waterspouts”? See how “to visualize” in the third stanza is so much more wordy and businesslike and less dreamy than “to imagine”?

I could have changed the verbs much more subtly and still spoiled the poem. On the other hand, it could have been worse: I didn’t throw in any nasty passive-voice constructions like “I felt my weight as it was held by the water” that invert the usual clearer order of doer of the action followed by receiver of the action: “I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.” Picking ineffective verbs—too wordy or too extreme—can keep your writing tied to the ground. Or, to stay in the world of this poem, the surface tension created by the verbs that keeps you on top of the water collapses, and you sink into the waves like the rest of humanity, splashing about in a sea of unhelpful language.

Our choices with verbs are more limited than other word choices in English. When choosing a noun or an adjective, we often have dozens of alluring options. But finding the right verb for a situation has a pleasure all its own. While they are sometimes less flashy than the adjectives or the nouns—I’m more likely to remember the “whales” and “waterspouts” than that the narrator was “checking” for them—they set the tone in a way that nouns and adjectives simply cannot. “Checking” is the same thing we do when crossing the street—it’s casual, almost thoughtless. In our mind’s eye, we see the narrator turning his head every now and then to look right and left for a whale’s back or a spout of water, as if for an oncoming car at a crosswalk—just in case. We get the sense that the narrator has done this before. He has walked across the Atlantic so many times that it’s as habitual as crossing a street with light traffic. He has dealt with the fantastic so many times that to him, it’s just an everyday occurrence. This is the essential tension of the poem—the contrast between the supernatural journey taken and the simple, confident word choice of the narrator. It allows this poem to retain its mystery and offer up new pleasures even after many repeated explorations. Verbs can take you across the Atlantic—as long as they’re the right ones.

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