Monday, March 19, 2012


As you know, the verb to be is the most frequently used verb and the weakest (least-expressive) verb in English. Writing coaches usually urge beginning writers to form the habit of using stronger verbs most of the time. For example:

The clause “her father was instrumental in the writing of the Navajo Code Talkers codebook” is weak. (Source)

The clause “her father co-authored the Navajo Code Talkers codebook” is stronger.

But we live in licentious times; you will notice that many writers today use weak verbs deliberately, in order to insinuate. To insinuate is to convey something sneakily – usually because it would sound improbable, dubious or absurd if it were stated straightforwardly.

For example, in a recent issue of The New York Times we see this sentence:

“But as word of the project [hiring homeless people to carry mobile Wi-Fi gear] spread on the ground and online, it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers was exploitative and discomfiting.”


In her summary of what the critics said, the writer used the weak verb was and followed it with two expressive adjectives (exploitative and discomfiting).

Watch what happens when we strengthen the sentence structure. We replace the weak verb was with the strong verbs exploited and discomfited. We get it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers exploited and discomfited [direct object].”

I’m sure you can see why the writer wanted to avoid this structure: Changing the adjectives into transitive verbs would have forced her to use a direct object, thereby identifying the exploited and discomfited. She probably sensed that if she wrote, “exploited and discomfited the down-and-out people” or “exploited and discomfited them,” readers would have snickered.

By the way, the article did not quote a single “down-and-out” person who said that the people who had hired him to carry the Wi-Fi gear had thereby exploited or discomfited him.

The Takeaway: In most non-fiction, you should avoid insinuation. Make straightforwardness your default style and insinuation the exception.

See disclaimer.

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