In English grammar "weak" verbs are those that have regular "ed" endings in the past tense; "strong" verbs are those that have irregular endings. But these terms are now commonly used to denote inferior and superior verbs. The concept has developed that some verbs are more forceful that others because they are "strong," but is this a misreading of the grammatical definition of weak and strong? Obviously one should try to find the most exact verb for a construction, but are there really verbs that are inherently "weak" or "strong" outside of the strict grammatical definition of "weak" and "strong"?

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    The terms strong and weak have to do with phonemic changes in Germanic languages that indicate tense change in verbs. Nothing to do with semantic strength. Jacob Grimm (yeah, of fairy tale fame) coined the terms. Go here for more: english.stackexchange.com/questions/60983/… – deadrat Oct 22 '16 at 8:35
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    Commonly used to refer to inferior and superior verbs? Erm, not by anyone I've ever come across. I've never heard of the notion of verbs being somehow ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to each other. There is nothing inherently more ‘forceful’ about a verb like grow (strong) than one like kill (weak), for example. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 22 '16 at 12:09
  • Janus--The terms weak and strong are commonly used on creative writing sites and function as synonyms for inferior and superior, but as you point out there is nothing more forceful about a strong verb like grow. So their use is in error. You also note that in general verbs are not superior or inferior to each other, but can a verb out of context be considered forceful? – Zan700 Oct 22 '16 at 13:48
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    @Zan700 Yes, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ are sometimes used to refer to the semantic impact of a particular verb in a given context (and not to the verb’s morphological categorisation)—but that doesn't make the verb superior or inferior to other verbs. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 23 '16 at 8:26

People on writing sites speaking of "strong" and "weak" verbs are not speaking of any sort of scientific or objective classification. I doubt their use of the term strong even originates in a misreading of the grammatical definition of Germanic strong and weak verbs (as you suggest).

They're simply using the word strong with its lay meaning, "forceful," rather than its technical meaning. The technical, objective meaning is pretty much irrelevant for creative writing advice. The word "strong" is just used to reference the writer's feeling or intuition that some verbs have a stronger mental effect than others. Example here: http://theunnovelist.com/super-verbs/ Note how it describes the listed verbs with a variety of adjectives: "super," "strong," "active," "creative" and "precise." None of these adjectives are used here with a very definite or precise meaning: they're just meant to make the reader think "these are some really good words to use in my writing!"

A common metaphor on these kind of sites is that good writing is "strong" or "vigorous" or "muscular" or "active" while bad writing is "weak" or "passive" (that last one is unfortunately prone to confusion with the grammatical concept of voice; see "How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why?" and "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive"). There's a whole body of received wisdom among creative writing gurus about which kinds of words and constructions are inherently "strong/active" (not in the grammatical sense) and which are inherently "weak/passive." For example, these kind of websites also often deify nouns and verbs as the "strongest" parts of speech, and condemn the use of any other parts of speech (especially adjectives or adverbs) as a necessary evil at best. Ranking verbs against each other (ignoring any possible effects of the context) just seems like another example of the same mindset.

  • english.stackexchange.com/users/77227/sum%c9%99lic suməlic May I post your answer on one of those writing sites? – Zan700 Oct 22 '16 at 16:32
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    I don't object, but I'm not sure I understand the reason for it. Are you having a dispute with someone else about whether verbs can be classified as strong/weak or superior/inferior in the creative-writing-advice sense? – herisson Oct 22 '16 at 16:37
  • No dispute, but I am trying to expand the dialogue on verb choice, especially on how some of the accepted wisdom came about. You make several trenchant observations. Thanks for permission. – Zan700 Oct 22 '16 at 17:19
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    This stuff is basically verbal homeopathy for writers. Like motivational speeches, such advice is usually harmless and might sometimes help someone. But it shouldn't be confused with knowledge, reality, or facts about language; just personal description. – John Lawler Oct 22 '16 at 18:21

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