Use Strong Verbs: a Fairy Tale

Want to get a great job? Here’s what the experts say: Garnish your résumé with strong verbs.

LinkedIn, for example, declares: “Use strong verbs to make your résumé more vibrant.”

All right, let’s vibrate:

Stop! Look! Listen!


Decide! Succeed!

Paste verbs like those in your résumé, we’re told, and you’ll knock the socks off of a potential employer, with zingers like

* Disrupted schedules

* Insulted supervisors

* Laughed at urgent requests

* Created chaos in office

* Crushed hopes

* Exemplified idleness

Strong, eh?

We grammarians know better. Those verbs aren’t strong. They are weaklings, every one.

See the telltale sign? It’s the wimpy –ed ending for the past tense (Yesterday I laughed) and past participle (I have laughed).

Alas, most verbs in English, including favorites like accomplish, succeed, devise, prepare, are weak. What weaklings!

Fortunately, however, there are a few, about 200 in number, that are truly strong. True strong verbs don’t change tense by wagging their little tails. No, strong verbs flex their interior muscles, changing vowels to show the change of tense, like this: I break (present tense), yesterday I broke (past tense), I have broken (past participle).

Who says this makes them strong? Jacob Grimm, that’s who. Yes, half of the Brothers Grimm of fairy tale fame. He was the first to call them strong—strong because they manage to change their shapes with their own interior strength rather than needing the help of a tacky little ending.

For a language composed of true strong verbs, you have to go way back in history, back even before our Anglo-Saxon linguistic ancestors came over from the continent of Europe and kicked around the poor Celts.

This is the story:

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, the great-grandparent of the English language had nothing but strong verbs. In those days when Germanic (yes, English is a Germanic language) tribes roamed the forests primeval, there was no room for weaklings.

But then, still a long time ago, another kind of inflection infected the verbs. Somebody started adding the equivalent of did to form the past tense and past participle of verbs, putting a little tail on them rather than letting them flex their vowels. Get it? Walk + did = walked.

So most of the formerly strong verbs weakened. For example, help, holp, holpen became help, helped, helped, and laugh, lough, laughen became laugh, laughed, laughed.

Even today the weaklings continue to nibble away at the hundred or so verbs that still remain strong. Fly is an example. In the 19th century, when that verb was put into play for the new sport of baseball, it became weak: instead of He flew out or He has flown out, a broadcaster will say He flied out, He has flied out.

And every new verb meekly tacks on an -ed to its tail: e-mail, Google, unfriend, for example, take the weak forms e-mailed, Googled, unfriended.

Still, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, our few strong verbs are holding out to the bitter end, even though resistance is futile. So give them some respect and use truly strong verbs like these in your résumé:

* Took frequent breaks

* Broke confidences

* Wrote ransom notes

* Gave away trade secrets

* Forgot important papers

* Drove colleagues crazy



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