When composing, we often automatically make lazy choices, especially when choosing verbs. We feel enticed by generic all-purpose verbs such as “deal with” or “show,” which on the surface can sound snappy and technical. However, the more these verbs are used in a particular paper, the more meaningless they become. Even in journal articles, these verbs put in a shocking number of appearances and return for many unsolicited encores. Yet these words convey no analytical meaning at all and are barely informational. Much to the reader’s frustration, “deal with” and “show” are often merely thinly disguised excuses for much more active analytical verbs such as theorize, suggest, imply, propose. For the reader, “Cheswick dealt with” or “Figure 4 shows” are far less meaningful than “Cheswick hypothesized” or “Figure 4 represents.” As always, you should choose exact words in favor of nonspecific ones, especially when you can use an active verb.
In technical writing, learning to deploy active verbs on the page is one of the most obvious and easiest ways to improve your style. Active verbs—whether in present or past tense—are especially meaningful as you describe work that another author or you have completed or are in the process of completing. As a rule, you should try to choose active verbs in the following circumstances:
- As you prepare a literature review, where your job is to describe the work of others in concise, analytical terms.
Phillip Bennett (2008) proposes a mechanism explaining increased silica solubility in the presence of two small organic acids.
- As you interpret your own experimental work, where your job is to explain observed trends.
The results of this study challenge findings from similar studies about analyte concentration varying with sample location.
- As you present a thesis or objective statement, where your job is to forecast information that will follow in the paper.
This study characterizes wetlands by their water chemistry and postulates that water chemistry varies with water source and wetland type.
- As you refer to figures, tables, or equations, where your job is to define the purpose of the figure, table, or equation.
Figure 4 depicts grain growth that occurred after the ceramic was sintered for three hours.
What follows is a substantial list of active verbs. I assembled this list by scanning journal articles to see how the best authors described their work or the work of others. Each of these words is packed with individual, analytical meaning. When using this list, be sure to choose the best verb for the situation—verbs such as “construct,” “challenge,” and “extrapolate” are obviously completely different from each other, so you must use them with meaningful care.