Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2007
The Legal Writer
The Beauty of the Verb
Creating a Picture in Every Sentence

By M. H. Sam Jacobson

If a lover of language were to write an ode, it should be to the verb. In a well-crafted sentence, the verb is both the beauty and the beast.

The beauty of the verb lies in the way that it creates a picture in the reader’s mind, a picture that is both nuanced and rich. Consider the different verbs that you could use to convey the closing of a door besides the verb to close: slam, shut, latch, push, pull and so on. Each of these verbs paints an entirely different picture of the action that occurred. With slam, the reader hears a bang, but with latch, maybe just a click.

In addition, these verbs vary in the richness of what you want to convey. With slam, the reader not only hears the noise, but also may feel the wall shaking, an emotion such as anger and the power or strength involved in the action. However, the verb latch would not convey those same layers, because it is more neutral emotionally.

Concurrent with its beauty, the verb is also a sentence’s beast of burden. It moves the sentence forward by connecting the actor and any additional information to the picture that it creates, and it maintains order by providing the information to the reader as the reader needs it. Consider the following two examples:

The letter explained the procedures for conducting performance appraisals.

The letter that was sent when she was in school but before she left on her trip to Costa Rica was written to her to point out problems with her job performance

In the first example, the verb carries its burden with aplomb, but in the second example, the reader gets lost (or bored) long before the weak verb arrives.

Despite these important functions of verbs, writers often neglect them. In fact, most of us are downright lazy about verbs. Instead of creating a canvas with clear and direct verbs, we often rely on wimpy verbs that convey no action, such as to be verbs, or we obscure the action through the use of passive voice and verb clauses.

Not only are strong verbs more clear and direct, they make the writing overall more clear and more forceful. With strong verbs, many writing problems, such as passive voice, nominalizations, wordiness and dangling prepositions, largely disappear.

To write with stronger verbs, use verbs that you can act out, minimize the use of to be verbs, and keep your verbs simple.

Use Verbs That You Can Act Out
Verbs create a picture of activity for the reader. If the reader cannot envision what the subject is doing, then the writer has used a weak verb. For example, how would you act out the verb to effectuate?

In addition, if the reader envisions an action other than the one the writer meant to convey, the writer has used a weak verb.

For example, what activity do you envision with to adhere? If you envision a post-it note stuck to someone’s rump, then using this verb to mean "complying with a rule or statute" conveys the wrong picture.

Similarly, consider the verb to afford. Often writers use this verb to mean "to give," but since the verb also means "having the ability to pay," the verb does not convey a clear picture to the reader.

Weak verbs also include informal or colloquial expressions, ones usually combined with a preposition, such as look at, points toward, deals with, hinges on, sets forth, lays out and turns upon. None of these verbs conveys the specific activity that is actually occurring in the sentence.

If, for example, I write that the court will "look at" the matter before it, most likely I do not mean that the court is merely looking. Instead, I most likely mean that the court will evaluate, rule, consider or analyze the matter before it. If so, then I should use the verb that most accurately conveys the action of the court. Only then will the reader have a clear picture.

Use To Be Verbs Only For Definition, Description or Status
To be verbs, including is, am, are, was, were, be, been and being, convey no action. Instead, they convey only what exists. This makes to be verbs well-suited for definition, description or status, but not for other purposes.

Since to be verbs do not communicate any action, they do not move writing forward. While such verbs often are necessary, you will write with greater strength and clarity if you use them sparingly. To illustrate, when I originally wrote the last sentence, I wrote "you will be able to write more strongly and clearly." When I eliminated the to be verb, I created a more forceful sentence in fewer words. In the rewritten sentence, the active verb, to write, carries the action and it does so directly, not abstractly.

Eliminating unnecessary to be verbs will also strengthen writing by eliminating weak subject/verb combinations, such as there is and it is when there does not refer to a place and it does not refer to a thing.

Example: There is a requirement that the court receive the petition within 70 days.

In this sentence, the to be verb is gratuitous because the sentence includes two other verbs, require (in the form of a nominalization) and receive. Eliminating the to be verb and combining the two action verbs leaves a much stronger (and shorter) sentence: "The court must receive the petition within 70 days."

Eliminating the use of to be verbs has another delightful side effect: it eliminates nearly all passive voice.

Passive voice occurs when you put the object of a sentence in the subject. The subject should contain the actor and the verb should contain the action of the sentence. When that does not occur, the reader has to interpret a sentence to determine who the actor is and what action occurred. If the sentence does not include the actor, the sentence becomes ambiguous and the reader may not understand what the writer meant to say.

Passive voice involves a to be verb plus a past participle (verb + ed). Therefore, editing for unnecessary to be verbs will also help to eliminate passive voice.

Example: Both issues were determined by the jury in favor of the plaintiff.

In this sentence, eliminating the to be verb will eliminate the passive voice: "The jury determined both issues in favor of the plaintiff."

Rewriting that sentence was fairly straightforward because the sentence included the actor. What if the original sentence had omitted the phrase "by the jury?" Then the sentence becomes ambiguous because the actor could be either the jury or the court, which makes a significant difference depending on the context.

Simplify Verbs to Eliminate Verb Clauses
Simple verbs are more effective than verb clauses because they state the action directly. Verb clauses unnecessarily add a level of abstraction to the action, making it more difficult for the reader to decipher the true action.

Example: The judge made the suggestion to meet at another time.

This sentence contains three verbs: made, suggest (in the form of a nominalization) and meet. To determine what action occurred, the reader must decode the verb clause by combining these three actions. That takes work. The better sentence would convert "made the suggestion" to "suggested," which eliminates the nominalization, and then would simplify like so: "The judge suggested meeting at another time." By simplifying the sentence in this way, the reader can readily understand the substance of the sentence without any cognitive effort.

A Parting Tale
Frustrated by the pervasiveness of weak verbs, including passive voice, in the papers I was grading, I once offered lunch to any student who could write the next paper without using a single to be verb or verb clause. I paid for a lot of lunches. Not only was the writing more clear, but so was the substance, the logic and the organization. With their strong verbs, the students discovered both the beauty and the beast of those verbs: they used verbs that added depth to the picture that they created, and they let the verbs carry the weight of what they had to say. The result was magical.

M. H. Sam Jacobson teaches at Willamette University College of Law. Portions of this article are excerpted from her book, Legal Analysis and Communication. You can reach her at sjacobso@willamette.edu.

© 2007 M. H. Sam Jacobson

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