How Can Specific Action Verbs and Strong Action Verbs Boost Your English?

Published on
April 21, 2022
|
Updated on
April 20, 2022
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📖
7
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

If you want to express yourself powerfully in English, you need the right verb. We’ll show you where, when and why this is important and give you tips for learning new action verbs.

How Can Specific Action Verbs and Strong Action Verbs Boost Your English?
Table of contents

Like most English teachers, I often recommend reading novels as a good way to improve my students’ English. In particular, it’s a good way to learn new words.

But many of my students come back to me and say that English novels are hard to understand, harder than newspaper articles. Why is this?

Let’s take an example from a novel:

George flung himself out of the window. As his body thudded on the road below, the traffic screeched to a halt.

Look at the words in bold. These are three words that my students might struggle with. They are all specific action verbs.

We see these verbs a lot in novels, but we don’t use them so much in daily conversation and we don’t see them so much in newspaper articles.

Let’s explore why.

What is a specific action verb?

For most physical actions in English, we have a simple verb, such as ‘walk’.

‘Walk’ is a general verb. What if we want to describe how a person walks? This is where specific action verbs come in!

These are some of the specific action verbs for ‘walk’:

  • Wander
  • Stroll
  • Meander
  • March
  • Amble
  • Saunter
  • Trudge
  • Stride
  • Hike
  • Trek

For instance, wander and stroll mean to walk in a casual way:

George wandered around the shopping mall while his wife was shopping.
The family strolled along the beach, enjoying the view.

On the other hand, to march means to walk forcefully and with a purpose:

Arthur marched into his boss’s room and demanded an explanation.

Let’s go back to our previous example:

George flung himself out of the window. As his body thudded on the road below, the traffic screeched to a halt.

Fling is a more specific way to say throw. It means ‘throw with force’. Thud means to make a flat sound as you hit something (like a boxer hitting a punching bag). Screech means to make a high-pitched noise. We use it to describe the noise when a car suddenly stops.

Without specific action verbs, the paragraph would look like this:

George threw himself out of the window. As his body hit the road below, the traffic stopped.

Without specific action verbs, it is easier to understand, but it is harder to imagine exactly what happened!

The verb is the most important word in any English sentence and you probably won’t understand a sentence if you don’t know the main verb.

When do we see specific action verbs?

The most common place to see specific action verbs is in novels.

Why? Because the writer wants to paint a picture using words and specific action verbs are the tools to do this.

If you want to enjoy English novels, you will need to learn lots of these verbs. There are lots of them… but not an endless supply.

Keep a page in your vocabulary notebook especially for specific action verbs. Write down any new ones that you read.

I recommend writing the entire sentence or phrase and underlining the new verb. Later, when you review your vocabulary, this will help you to remember the context.

Do we use specific action verbs in general conversation?

Specific action verbs are not only for storytelling; we do use them in general conversation too.

We may use them less frequently, but we do use them. Here’s an example:

Albert: Did you hear the news? Alex and George got into a fight!
Roger: Wow! What happened?
Albert: Alex whacked George with a book and George smacked Alex in the face.

In order to make the story more interesting or more expressive, Albert uses specific action verbs.

In fact, as an English learner moves from intermediate to advanced level, a key skill is using more precise or specific vocabulary.

What is a strong action verb?

A strong action verb is exactly that - it is a strong way to express an action.

We usually talk about strong action verbs in the context of CVs (or resumes in American English).

When you apply for a job, you need to explain what you can do. You also need to talk about your experience. Strong action verbs can help you do this.

Let’s see an example from a CV:

Work experience

Senior Graphic Designer (2019-present)

  • Designed web pages for clients
  • Created brochures and promotional materials
  • Presented designs to clients
  • Mentored junior designers
  • Developed improved workflow processes

The words in bold are strong action verbs. With these verbs, we have a clear picture of the work that this person has done.

Here is the same example without strong action verbs:

Work experience

Senior Graphic Designer (2019-present)

  • Made web pages for clients
  • Did brochures and promotional materials
  • Talked about designs to clients
  • Helped junior designers
  • Made improved workflow processes

Words such as made and did are not as strong as designed and created. These general, everyday words are not precise or specific enough for a CV.

Just like specific action verbs, strong action verbs are not just for CVs.

They are a key part of expressing yourself clearly in a business context - or even in everyday conversation.

Problems that English learners face with specific action verbs and strong action verbs

I always tell my students to try and guess the meaning of a new word from the context.

However, with specific action verbs, this is hard. Let’s see an example:

During the fight, George pummelled Alex until they were separated.

It is quite easy to guess the general meaning of pummel: to hit. But pummel has a specific meaning: to hit hard and repeatedly.

It is difficult to guess the specific meaning from the context.

So what should you do? Get more context!

You can use a website like SentenceDict.com to get more examples of pummel in a sentence. Just type ‘pummel’ in the search box and you get 27 further examples.

What about when you are writing and you want to use specific action verbs?

Let’s say that you want a specific action verb for ‘hit’ to describe a fistfight. Simply type ‘synonyms for hit’ into Google and search:

However, you should remember that these words have very specific meanings.

I recommend that you only use specific action verbs when you become familiar with them. By this, I mean when you have encountered them three or four times when reading or listening.

When using strong action verbs in business, try to use words that are easy to imagine or visualise.

For example, you can imagine someone leading a team. But can you imagine someone reformulating strategic initiatives?

So, while ‘reformulating strategic initiatives’ sounds like very high-level business language, it is business jargon and not something that helps you to express yourself more clearly.

Because we are using active verbs, it is always better to use them in active voice and not passive voice:

Strong: I improved the design.
Weak: The design was improved.

You should also avoid changing a strong action to a noun, as in these examples:

Weak: I made a presentation on sales to the board.
Strong: I presented the sales figures to the board.
Weak: I held a meeting with the client.
Strong: I met the client.
Weak: I gave three interviews.
Strong: I interviewed three people.

Remember, the verb is the most important word in any sentence, so strong verbs are better than strong nouns.

Use specific action verbs and strong action verbs to take your English to the next level

Whether we are talking about specific action verbs or strong action verbs, the main purpose is the same: to use strong and expressive language.

This is often the difference between an intermediate level speaker of English and an advanced level user of English, so it really can take your English to the next level.

Now that you understand the importance of these words, it is time to go out there and find some new vocabulary. Start building up your action verb word list!