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Describing language
Describing language

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1.1 How verbs can shape meaning

Verbs are an incredibly important part of speech. Not only do they help us to structure our language, by allowing us to show who is doing what to whom, or who is experiencing a thought, feeling or emotion, they also add colour to the language we use and allow us to express shades of meaning. As such, verbs are an extremely useful resource for writers, advertisers and storytellers alike, and in the next activity you’ll have a chance to put your creative writing skills to the test.

Activity 2 Change the verb, improve the story

Timing: This activity should take around 20 minutes

Read the following short story and then rewrite your own version of it in the box below. You can only change the verbs that have been italicised in the original.

The astronaut stepped out of the pod door and onto the planet’s surface. She looked across the landscape to see the red hills. The astronaut smiled and thought about building a settlement. She opened her scientific equipment to take soil samples. As she worked, the astronaut saw three creatures looking at her from a few meters away. Heart beating quickly, the astronaut stood and moved towards the creatures and took a photograph. The creatures ran into the hills and the astronaut went back to her ship to tell her crewmates.

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There are hundreds of possible answers for this activity. The original version of the text feels quite mechanical. The majority of the verbs used are quite common and do not necessarily convey the uniqueness of the situation that the story describes. One example of how changing the verbs could have made this story more engaging is given below. Here you’ll see that everyday verbs like looked have been changed for less common words like gazed and the relatively neutral form walked is replaced with tiptoed, to convey more about exactly how the astronaut approached the creatures.

The astronaut manoeuvred out of the pod door and onto the planet’s surface. She gazed across the landscape to appreciate the red hills. The astronaut grinned and wondered about building a settlement. She unpacked her scientific equipment to collect soil samples. As she toiled, the astronaut spotted three creatures peering at her from a few meters away. Heart pounding quickly, the astronaut stood and tiptoed towards the creatures and took a photograph. The creatures zoomed into the hills and the astronaut went back to her ship to notify her crewmates.

You may have also wanted to change some of the nouns, perhaps alien would have sounded more exciting than creature, or you might have changed the repetition of astronaut for other labels such as scientist and explorer. Further still, you might have wanted to add some adjectives like scaly and purple to describe the creatures and to increase how exciting the story was. In truth, all of these different parts of speech work together to achieve the overall effect of a text. But the important thing to take away from this exercise is just how much you could make a text seem more exciting simply by changing the verbs.

One thing you might have spotted when making your changes to this story is that, even though you changed some of the verbs, you didn’t change their endings. Replacing stepped with manoeuvred or smiled with grinned still meant that you used an -ed ending to make the story make sense. The same is true for swapping looking with peering, where the -ing form is used. This is because of the different morphemes (see Week 1) that verbs can take. You’ll take a closer look at morphemes in the next section.