How Active Are Your Verbs?

Activate your words

Activate your words

Hands up. How many of you have ever said to your children, ‘Stop that right now’ ? As every parent knows, this direct approach packs more punch than,’ I would like you to reconsider what you are doing at this moment in time…’

And if son number one is trying to squash son number two’s fingers into a wall socket, a short, sharp command is essential! It’s certainly preferable to son number two getting a short, sharp shock!

When writing sales copy, it’s worth exploring how verb choices affect the structure and impact of a sentence. You can unwittingly create all sorts of effects when you stumble your way through sales writing.

Sometimes, it’s useful to have a few pointers to make the writing process easier.

Using the active voice

Do you remember learning about active and passive tenses? For those who nodded off during grammar lessons, here is a quick reminder.

The active voice is when the subject of the sentence is doing something. For example, ‘The girl picked up the coffee cup.’ When changed into the passive tense, this sentence becomes,’ The coffee cup was picked up by the girl.’ Can you see the difference?

The ‘subject’ in the sentence (the girl) performs the ‘action’ of the verb in the sentence. (picked up) The ‘object’ is the coffee cup.

Generally speaking, sentences written in the active tense are shorter, clearer and direct. Active sentences tend to focus on a person doing something, rather than on the object itself. No wonder copywriters love ‘em!

To convert a passive sentence into an active one, put the subject of the sentence at the start. When you change a sentence into a passive one, something is being done to the ‘subject’. Therefore, it shifts the emphasis from the doer, to what is being done.

How to spot passive sentences:

Passive sentences often contain:

  • The word ‘by’
  • A form of the verb ‘to be.’ (Am, are, can be, is, has, was, and were)

When are passive sentences useful in copywriting?

1. Scientific or technical writing relies on the passive voice. If the person isn’t important but the object is, a passive voice is the better option. ‘Tigers can be observed during…’ The person doing the observing is less important in this instance. This does, however, make passive writing more objective – or rather dull.

2. The passive voice can be used when writing headlines. If you occasionally use the passive tense for headings, subheadings and bulleted lists, you draw more attention to keywords. For example,’ Nikki Cooke bitten by writing bug’ is punchier than ‘Writing bug bites Nikki Cooke.’

3. When writing website copy, the passive tense can help with Search Engine Optimisation. For example, read this example of a ‘passive’ sentence:

‘Search engine optimisation is a sales tool used by business owners.’ If written in the ‘active’ tense it changes to, ‘Business owners use search engine optimisation as a sales tool.’

Because keyword rich words are at the start of sentences, they are more likely to be picked up by search engine bots.

Choose verbs with power

In my heady days as an English teacher, I recall many a time when I taught verbs are ‘doing’ words…’
Verbs really do animate sentences. By using powerful verbs, you cut out unnecessary adverbs and keep sentences concise.

For example, instead of saying someone can ‘definitely find what they are looking for,’ why not write ‘discover.’ ‘Discover‘ is a fantastic word as it suggests the reader will learn something new to help them. How many more powerful words can you think of? The shorter the better… Gain, save, win!

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2 Responses to How Active Are Your Verbs?

  1. Jamie Graham says:

    Hi Nikki,

    This is a very useful post. “Discover” is one of my favourite words too. I remember reading a blog post about how someone massively increased conversions by simply changing the word “repair” to “fix” in the headline.

    I really liked your 3 part series on writing an About page too, and it prompted me into doing something about my own!



  2. Nikki says:

    Hi Jamie – and thanks for your comments. I’ve had lots of feedback about those posts. People always find writing about themselves tough…

    Yup, those small words definitely roll off the tongue better! And resonate with people. It’s fascinating how the word ‘fix’ conjures up all sorts of benefits, isn’t it?

    Thanks again Jamie. :-)

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