Stylistic Techniques: the Strong Verb

Mar 26, 2021 | Posted by Jennifer


In the Structure and Style sequence, the strong verb is the third dress-up to be introduced, sandwiched between the who/which clause and the because clause. Strong verbs replace their more bland siblings and create stronger imagery in the reader’s mind. In Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, Andrew Pudewa describes verbs as the most powerful part of speech, writing that “the verb can make or break a sentence” (173).

How do teachers help their students include strong verbs in their writing? To begin with, they should clarify which verbs are not strong and then ban them. While any frequently overused verb could be banned, common verbs that typically go on the list include say/said, think/thought, go/went, get/got, and see/saw. List them on the checklist so that your students have a handy visual to consult as they go to write their assignments. For younger students you may want to start small and ban only one or two verbs at a time and gradually add to the list over the span of a few lessons.

Once you have clarified which verbs cannot be used in compositions, it is important to help your students have stronger substitute verbs readily at hand. I love to help my students craft a list of stronger selections during class time. Following Andrew’s modeling, when appropriate I will even act out the verbs. Hilarity often ensues. If the banned word is go/went, for example, I might model the verbs skipped, traipsed, sauntered, strolled, sneaked, or tiptoed, just to name a few. A thesaurus will supply a long list of verbs. One of my favorites is A Word Write Now, IEW’s thematic thesaurus. Older students appreciate IEW’s Writing Tools App. The paid version includes a digital version of A Word Write Now. One more super handy resource that literally puts a wall of verbs in front of your students is the Portable Walls for Structure and Style Students.

As you come up with alternatives, list them on the whiteboard, and have your students write them down in their notebooks. For my dyslexic and dysgraphic students, I like to take a screenshot of the board to share with them in our Google Classroom. Doing that frees the students up to focus on the content and not stress over the note taking.

To test whether or not a word functions as a strong verb, teach your students to use Andrew’s verb test. Insert the word into these sentences:

  • Yesterday he ____________________.

  • Today he ____________________.

  • Tomorrow he will ___________________.

If the word works in those sentences, it fits the verb pattern. Let’s try it with this word: sing. Yesterday he sang. Today he sings. Tomorrow he will sing.

As you encourage your students to substitute stronger verbs in place of their more sedate siblings, you will begin to notice something else. Your students’ vocabularies will expand even as they improve their writing. It’s a valuable side benefit to banning the boring verbs, one that is well worth your time and effort in nurturing. If you would like to review the dress-ups already discussed, check out these blog posts for the -ly adverb, who/which clause, and because clause. In the next stylistic techniques blog post, we will meet another vocabulary builder: the quality adjective. See you then!


                                                                                      Work Cited
Pudewa, Andrew. Teaching Writing: Structure and Style. The Institute for Excellence in Writing, 2015.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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