The power of verbs
University students and staff sometimes ask me, ‘What can I do tomorrow that will immediately raise the quality of my writing?’ Quite often I’ll answer, ‘Attend to your verbs.’
Verbs are ‘action words’ in a sentence that tell us what the subject is doing. For example, ‘Perez and Martini (2021) analysed the problem using a participatory research protocol.’ Verbs have other roles too, but in this post I’ll concentrate on the ‘action’ function.
For several years I was external examiner for a university’s Engineering department. Doctoral students would write a 3,000-word literature review at the end of their first year, which I would assess. Each year, among the eighty or so new doctoral students, several would sprinkle the phrase ‘look at’ liberally in their account, for example:
‘In this section I look at three models for regulating combustion engine emissions.’
‘This section looks at three models for regulating combustion engine emissions’.
Now, ‘look at’ is a phrase we often use in speech. However, I think it has no value in academic writing. The term is so vague as to border on meaningless. My question to the student would be, ‘In what way are you looking at the three models?’ Many other verbs would be better than ‘look at’:
‘In this section I compare and contrast three models for regulating combustion engine emissions.’
Other possible replacements for ‘look at’ might be review, critique or assess. All these verbs are more precise.
Use verbs with the right weight
In academic writing, verbs also play a vital role in showing the ‘weight’ with which you agree with a proposition. When reporting on your own work, you might write ‘the data suggest’. In this case, you’re being tentative. However, if you’re much more confident about your findings you might write ‘the data show’.
The importance of verbs was brought home to me recently when a colleague and I compared and contrasted two research papers in environmental science. We agreed that one paper came across much more powerfully and persuasively than the other, although both reported on significant research.
In the paper we liked less, the article’s abstract and introduction contained verbs, such as ‘indicate’ and ‘suggest’, which revealed a lack of conviction in the authors’ reporting of their findings. In the preferred paper, the authors were much more confident about their findings and used stronger verbs, such as ‘show’, ‘exhibit’, ‘identify’, ‘reveal’ and ‘possess’.
As a student, you may not be confident about the claims you are making, but as you progress through your degree course, your ability to make judgements about sources will improve. Investigate the writing of academic authors you admire and notice how they use verbs that carry just the right amount of weight, for instance:
‘We provide a comprehensive analysis of the quantity and source of beach-washed plastic debris on one of the world’s remotest islands. The density of debris was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, suggesting that remote islands close to oceanic plastic accumulation zones act as important sinks for some of the waste accumulated in these areas.’
Turn abstract nouns into verbs
You can also make good use of active verbs by substituting them for abstract nouns. Abstract nouns are names for a quality, idea or state that cannot be directly appreciated with the senses: words such as analysis, belief, comprehension, discovery, failure, measurement, sensitivity and tolerance. It is fine to use abstract nouns sparingly in academic writing. The problem comes when abstract nouns proliferate and have a deadening, de-energising effect on your writing. They make your writing sound important, but can also make your sentences needlessly convoluted. Here are two everyday examples, showing the effect of turning the abstract noun into a verb and making the sentence more straightforward and energised:
The electricians conducted an investigation into the fault.
The electricians investigated the fault.
The committee had no expectation that it would meet the deadline.
The committee did not expect to meet the deadline.
Now try these two examples, identifying the abstract noun, turning it into a verb and reworking the sentence. You can check your answers against mine at the bottom of the page:
There is a need for the teaching staff to give further consideration to this programme.
The intention of the committee is to offer those students a different course.
Check your verbs
So, one effective way to raise the quality of your academic writing is to check your verbs. Select verbs that say exactly what you mean and carry the right amount of weight. If abstract nouns are deadening your sentences, turn them into verbs. And to help you do these things, why not create a list of suitable verbs to use in your discipline? Whether you’re undertaking an undergraduate programme, a Master’s degree or doctorate, it is quite easy to assemble a list of a hundred or more suitable verbs. Then, you’ll never be stuck trying to choose the right verb again.
 J. L. Lavers and A. L. Bond (2017), ‘Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), 114(23), p.6052
The teaching staff need to further consider this programme.
The committee intends to offer those students a different course.
24 March 2022
Look through your essay and underline your reporting verbs. Then decide whether you have used the most suitable verb in each case.
If your essay is peppered with comments such as ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’, you may have made a common grammatical error. To check, look for the pronouns.
Even if you feel safer with the passive voice, consider how you might use the occasional active sentence to liven up your writing.