Using verbs with flair!

Posted on May 2, 2022

Can you solve this riddle? “I can express an action, an event or a state of being. What am I?” You guessed it! I’m a verb: an essential part of a sentence!

“Conjugated,” “irregular,” “transitive,” “intransitive,” “reflexive,” “auxiliary,” “attributive” and “impersonal” are all terms that people use to describe types of verbs and verb groups. But let’s put grammar aside and consider dull, weak verbs for a moment.

Spectacularly dull verbs

The sky, a person’s complexion, colours can appear dull or lacklustre. According to Antidote’s English dictionary, “dull” refers to something that isn’t interesting or exciting. A dull verb is a catch-all that is dull because it’s overused. I remember one of my high school teachers going over the three verbs that people use for just about anything: “to have,” “to be” and “to do.” But they aren’t the only dull verbs out there! Here are a few others:

  • to come
  • to go
  • to make
  • to hold
  • to put
  • to get
  • to move

Elimination of dull verbs: a slam dunk?

Should we banish all dull verbs from our writing to make it more lively and exciting? Of course not! Besides, that would be impossible. However, there are many advantages to replacing some weak verbs with stronger ones.

More specific meanings

When you have more than one verb to choose from, it’s better to choose the most specific one. Compare these two sentences:

  • She put sauce on her noodles.
  • She heaped sauce onto her noodles.

To heap one thing onto another means to lay large amounts of something on something else. “Heap” has a more specific meaning than “put” does.

Greater effect

Imagine you’re in a theatre. An actor stands on stage performing a role. The actor’s performance is dull; the voice intonation, flat. Lines are simply being recited. A text with dull verbs is like that actor’s performance: the words aren’t wrong, but they don’t convey any enthusiasm or conviction either.

Instead of writing “The hotel is beside Lake Louise,” you could rephrase the sentence to give it some depth. For example, you could say “The hotel overlooks Lake Louise.” This version makes it easier for the reader to visualize the magnificent view from the hotel.

Concise writing

Many dull verbs require direct objects. However, by replacing dull verbs with more concise and precise ones, you eliminate the need for a direct object and shorten your sentence. For example, “to have a chat with someone” can become “to chat with someone.” Instead of saying “I’ll make a stop at their place,” why not say “I’ll stop by their place”? Instead of writing “to have trouble doing something,” you can use the verbs “to struggle” or “to toil,” depending on the context.

A good impression

Overusing dull verbs takes away from the text and will bore the reader. Enhance your writing by choosing more specific verbs (for example: “this person exudes energy,” instead of “this person has a lot of energy”), or liven up your texts by using action verbs (for example: “she’s whipping up a dessert,” instead of “she’s making a dessert”). Sometimes, you’ll have to reword your sentences. Compare the following examples.

An example of a sentence with a weak verb, and its revised version
Dull version Revised version
She is not happy with the way things have gone and wants to leave. Unhappy with the turn of events, she decides to leave.

No more boring texts

Once you’ve written your text, set it aside and let the ideas settle. Fresh eyes will help you spot dull verbs. As with most things, remember to practise moderation! Instead of crossing out every dull verb, try changing a few of them. To find alternatives, you can look for inspiration in thesauruses, dictionaries and books on difficult points of English.

Replacing dull verbs requires real mental gymnastics. However, the more you practise, the better and faster you’ll be able to identify and replace these dull verbs. You might even find that reading more helps. After all, as writers know, reading is a great way to improve your writing. No matter what method you choose, though, your style will improve with practice for everyone’s reading pleasure.

Adapted by Nicholas Vaughan, Language Portal of Canada


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Lina Scarpellini

Lina Scarpellini

Lina Scarpellini is of Italian-Canadian descent, and she has a strong sense of curiosity. In addition to being a certified translator and editor, she also works as a fitness instructor. Lina is passionate about everything related to health, well-being and physical fitness.


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Submitted by Karen on May 4, 2022, at 18:35

What a marvelous text! Thanks to you for making us improving in an elegant way!

Submitted by torres on May 30, 2022, at 4:13

I found this blog so amazing. So much information, and it's all so well organized. . This is going to be a valuable resource for me. Thank you so much for creating it!

Submitted by Teknik Telekomunikasi on August 10, 2023, at 21:45

What are some terms people use to describe types of verbs and verb groups, and how do they relate to the concept of dull verbs?