Using Active Verbs

When composing, we often 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 can 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 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.

Active verbs are especially meaningful as you describe work that you or another author have completed or are in the process of completing. As a rule, you should try to choose active verbs in the following circumstances:

What follows is a substantial list of active verbs. 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 completely different from each other, so you must use them with meaningful care.

Active Verbs That Describe Work
yield illustrate illuminate reveal employ mean suggest
clarify indicate represent prove insist propose imply
assert postulate consider infer state extrapolate estimate
define classify invoke analyze compare hypothesize synthesize
summarize disagree generalize narrate evaluate simplify measure
note predict introduce report chalenge delineate depict
construe interpret provide acknowledge distinguish inform specify
restrict determine detail sum up designate point out set forth
deduce derive characterize guide maintain believe speculate
present organize investigate assess determine calculate support
devise construct evaluate attribute obtain argue reiterate

Using Verbs To Describe Phenomena

Which do you prefer: the phrase "to cut or split something into two theoretically and essentially equal parts" or the simple verb "bisect"? Which is easier to write and to read: the phrase "unite into what is essentially one body" or the simple verb "coalesce"? Your readers will be highly pleased with you if you offer them lively, precise, direct, robust, vibrant, single-word verbs, especially as you explain scientific phenomena. Furthermore, your writing will be less wordy and more direct and accurate. However, many writers are tempted in the other direction. Trying to sound impressive, some would write "The device is prone to the submission of one pulse every 12 seconds" instead of the much simpler and more accurate "The device transmits one pulse every 12 seconds." Always beware of overcomplicating your verbs, and remember that their function is to describe actively and efficiently.

Many verbs are used continually in one field but rarely in another, so it is essential that you become familiar with those verbs that are standard vocabulary in your field. The verb "induce," which means "to produce an electric current or magnetic effect by induction," should be standard vocabulary for someone in physics or electrical engineering, while the verb "sinter," which means "to weld without melting," should be familiar and useful to those in metallurgy (it also doubles as a noun in geology).

Plenty of meaningful single-word verbs are out there just waiting for you to use them. One easy way to choose the best verb is to consult the brief (and certainly not exhaustive) list that follows to search for the kinds of active verbs that the best writers choose. The verbs are organized randomly to stress that they are not interchangeable nor to be used arbitrarily. Even though the exact verb that you need to describe a phenomenon may not be on this list, the verbs on the list do suggest the kind of verbs that you should choose. Many students keep this page open as they write a paper just to keep their minds tuned-in to using single-word active verbs. For efficiency, accuracy, and your own credibility as a scientist or engineer, always aim for the best and simplest verb. If you are unsure of a verb’s exact meaning, be sure to look it up.

Active Verbs That Describe Phenomena

discharge overlie emanate radiate scatter exchange separate
surround combine eliminate emit transmit carry bombard
exert exude interact behave exchange absorb converge
extend constrain force elongate contract trend plunge
occur fracture continue mix slow quicken produce
bond interlock fuse deteriorate migrate encompass access
traverse join dominate deposit underlie overlap originate
isolate invade permeate evolve divide sinter reclaim
restore abandon contain accrue precede influence saturate
circulate orient forecast distribute allow lag terminate
activate cease record form transect condense enrich
invert convert alter link superimpose rotate rupture
streamline appear require ascend descend collapse superpose
crystallize bisect coalesce disperse propel disseminate cede