Words to watch for: the hollow verbs


Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion“: TS Eliot’s eponymous “hollow men” are said to represent Western culture after the First World War.

It’s obviously a dramatic overstatement for me to apply Eliot’s post-apocalyptic words to a list of hollow verbs.

And yet …

Hopefully you’ve already seen my warning to “Cut ‘is'” and thereby shave a double-digit percentage of needless verbiage off your word count. If you have, you’ll already be familiar with the idea of a hollow verb.

When combined with an abstract term in the subject position of your sentence, hollow verbs like the following deaden your writing. I describe these verbs as “hollow” because they “gesture without motion” and provide a “shape without form”: they are stale, so overused as to be nearly wrung dry of meaning, devoid of the ability to “engage the senses and anchor your ideas in physical space,” as Helen Sword suggests the best academic writing can do (Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard UP, 2012: p. 173).

The hollow verbs:

  • be
  • make
  • find
  • use
  • reach
  • show
  • demonstrate
  • analyze
  • consider
  • examine
  • explore

There is no life left in the hollow verbs. As much as a verb is an ‘action word,’ these verbs provide only Eliot’s “paralyzed force.” An over-reliance on these Dirty Eleven moves your writing into hollow, deadened territory.

So how do you check to see if you are over-relying on hollow verbs? A few won’t sink you, but an abundance of them — especially if they are paired with abstract sentence subjects — suggest that your writing is likely to be unclear. Here’s how to check if you rely too much on hollow verbs:

  1. Search your most recent document for each of these verbs, either using the Ctrl+F function in your word processor, or by highlighting the verbs in a representative couple of pages of text. Familiarize yourself with the hollow verbs you use most frequently. Learn to identify them as you edit, and replace them judiciously, so that you avoid an over-reliance on these terms.
  2. Experiment with writingwellishard.com. Look for blue-highlighted “to be” verbs” and purple-highlighted nominalizations, which can be symptoms of nearby hollow verbs. If too many hollow verbs push your test results into “heart attack” territory, know that you’re risking deadening your writing, and enliven it with original, animated verbs — verbs that can be attached to a sensory experience, ideally.

If writingwellishard.com or your own assessment suggests you’re using a lot of hollow verbs, your options are either: (a) revise; or, (b) keep the hollow verbs, but ensure that the other aspects of your sentence are fresh, clear, novel, new — writing with form and colour, force and motion.

Image credit: Steve Snodgrass, Scarecrow Up Close, 2016.

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