Calling All Weaklings! Avoid Forms of the Verb ‘To Be’!

wear_verb_to_beWas I ever surprised when I hopped online to do some cursory research about the “weak” verb to be. I thought it was a simple and straightforward topic, but I learned otherwise. (I hate it when someone tries to complicate what I think should be simple.)

Some grammarians had delved deeper than I had, providing even more reasons to avoid using to be and its many forms: is, are, was, were, will be, should be, would be, have been, had been, etc.

Here’s what I originally intended to write:

Forms of the verb to be are weak because they convey only existence:
I am  |  he was  |  she will be  |  they would have been, etc.

A verb is supposed to show action, and simply existing does not convey action.

Now consider these action verbs:
catapult  |  march  |  climb  |  shout  |  hop  |  yell  |  insult  |  throw

Because forms of the verb to be have so little action to offer, we neutralize or at the least detract from the action verbs with which we combine them.

Consider these straightforward examples and which phrasing conveys the most direct message and the most action:

The senator will be giving a speech on Monday.
The senator will speak Monday.

You should be asking Nina about the budget.
Please ask Nina about the budget.

Your comments are making me angry.
Your comments anger me.

Your work is inspiring to the students.
Your work inspires students.

The result was an evolving chaos.
Chaos evolved.

The people in the support group are still employed.
The people in the support group still have jobs.

Kyle is a man who has earned a lot of respect.
Kyle has earned a lot of respect.

Her father, who is a member of the same firm, is retiring in June.
Her father, a member of the same firm, retires in June.

Sunday was the day the Green Bay Packers beat the Cleveland Browns.
The Green Bay Packers beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Today’s programs are accomplishing the same thing.
Today’s programs accomplish the same thing.

Including an unnecessary form of the verb to be weakens and clutters each statement.

Other Views

Because I like to respect other views, here are two weak verb / strong verb descriptions I found online.

1) The distinction between a weak verb and a strong verb is based on how the past tense of the verb is formed.

Weak verbs (more commonly called regular verbs) form the past tense by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form—or present tense form—of the verb (for example, call, called and walk, walked).

Strong verbs (usually called irregular verbs) form the past tense or the past participle (or both) in various ways but most often by changing the vowel of the present tense form (for example, give, gave and stick, stuck).

2) In writing, verbs can help you convey a specific message and structure your thoughts and feelings, but their effectiveness depends on the verb you select for your sentence. A weak verb that implies only the action being performed is less useful to a strong sentence than a strong verb that clearly states the action and helps a reader visualize it.

When weak verbs are used in sentences, they inhibit clarity and the power of active voice. Consider the following example: The sailors were moving to the barracks. It includes “were,” which is a “to be” verb, and a conjugation of the weak verb “move.” The action is implied, but we don’t know exactly how the soldiers moved. They could be skipping or tiptoeing.

Now, consider the revised version of the sentence: “The sailors march to the barracks.” It includes a strong verb, and the action is clear and concise, making the whole sentence a stronger statement that the reader can easily picture.

As I point out in my book, Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from the Ruthless Editor, including forms of the verb to be often makes the sentence passive rather than active. You’ll often find it in communication from governmental agencies:

Regulations have been proposed by the EPA.
The EPA has proposed regulations.

The following information must be included in the application for it to be considered complete.
You must include the following information in your application.

So there you have it. I learned that my view of what constitutes a weak verb was too narrow, and you now share with me this expanded vision. When you edit your next report, email, essay or manuscript, watch for forms of ‘to be’ verbs and replace them with something that conveys more action.

Do you have friends or colleagues who care about word use, word meaning, and other things grammatical? Consider sharing this message with them.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

2 thoughts on “Calling All Weaklings! Avoid Forms of the Verb ‘To Be’!

  1. Avatarwilliam

    I would quibble over ‘be’ as an auxiliary verb in the likes of future and present / past progressive tenses? The progressive (are listening to, was marching, etc.) adds meaning that the simple present or past miss. It’s also necessary to form the simple future tense. MacArthur could not have expressed, ‘I shall return,’ without it.

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