To Verb or not To Verb?

The word ‘verb’ probably brings a slight tinge of discomfort to the average person – with memories of dry old grammar lessons from school. Of course, to us, the word brings up images of sunshine, rainbows and everything that’s good in the world – but I guess that’s why we’re the words people.


So consider us ambassadors of the grammar-obsessed to the rest of civilised society: verbs are your friends. But like all friends, they need to be taken care of – particularly if you’re writing for a digital audience. Here’s how.


What’s a verb?

Regular readers of this blog will be well used to our complaints about various aspects of syntax that we don’t like, from excess words, to adverbs, and the passive voice. In fact, we don’t stop banging on about things we don’t like. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to get excited about a thing we do like: verbs.


In all seriousness, verbs are one of the two components of language that lie right at the fundamental root of decent quality syntax. The other is nouns – but we’ll save our excitement about them for another day.


For those who’ve let the grammar terminology slip since the high school days, allow us to recap.


Here’s how the Oxford Dictionary defines a verb:


“A verb describes what a person or thing does or what happens.”


That seems easy enough to wrap your head around. How to use them is slightly trickier.


To conjugate

Good verb usage is fairly rare to come across in digital copy. And if you want your copy to stand out from the crowd – learning how make the most out of so fundamental a building block of language will certainly help.


Anyone who’s ever learned or tried to learn another language will know that verbs conjugate. A conjugation is when a verb changes, according to a range of grammatical principles: voice, mood, tense, number and person. This happens in French, German and most other European languages – with English being no exception.


Don’t worry – we’re not going to explain what each of those means. The important thing to remember is that there are a lot of different forms of verbs.


Take for example the verb ‘to roll’ – a fairly standard, regular verb. Well, it turns out it has no fewer than 60 distinct forms.


Luckily our brains automatically understand how all of that works – so we don’t ever need to learn the conjugations of our own language. As a writer, knowing that certainly helps, but you’ll never find yourself having to find the future perfect continuous of ‘to write’, (‘Will have been writing’, if you’re interested).


What you need to take from this elongated explanation is that you’ve got a lot of options when you choose what type of verb to use. So choose carefully.


So which verbs can I use?


Well, each of the distinct verb forms has its own use – otherwise they wouldn’t all exist.


But when writing, especially for digital media, some are better than others.


Let’s say, for example, I wanted to rewrite our about us page, and describe Inside Copy as a company that works in digital marketing. I have a few options for how to do that:


  • Inside Copy works in digital marketing.
  • Inside Copy is working in digital marketing.
  • Inside Copy has been working in digital marketing (for many years…)
  • Inside Copy will have been working in digital marketing (for even more years before long…)


I’m sure we could find more and more ridiculous and elongated verb constructions by which to describe ourselves if we wanted to – but you get the point. The fundamental meaning is baked into the verb ‘to work’ – and all the ‘has been’ and ‘will have been’ is simply window dressing.


Economy in digital copy is good. Keep your verbs active and they will reward you with good copy.


You’re never going to be able to eliminate continuous and perfect tense construction from your writing – because they exist for a reason. But in general, try and make sure your verbs appear in simple rather than continuous forms. That’s ‘we write’ and ‘we wrote’ rather than ‘we are writing’ or ‘we were writing’ ‘we have been writing’ or any other convoluted combination.


And if you’d rather save yourself the time and energy and get the experts to do it for you – then let us know.

Matt Rooke About the author
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