Monday, June 6, 2011

B is for (To) Be Verbs

Forms of be: am, is, are, was, were, been, being.

Some “be” verbs combine with “helping” verbs to indicate time, possibility, obligation, or necessity: can run, was sleeping, had been working.

Some common helping verbs are: be able to, could, have to, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, would.

Leaving out a helping verb often leaves a sentence fragment and doesn’t make sense. For example: Many have been fortunate (not Many been fortunate…) or Some could be real-life Superman (not Some be…).

Sometimes “to be” verbs are used as linking verbs (linking the noun with the adjective or adverb: He was happy, They were careful, Our trip to Glacier Park was fabulous.

They can be used to describe actions already in progress at the moment "in focus" within the sentence, as in “I was doing my homework when my brother broke into my room, crying.” or “I will be graduating from college about the same time you enter high school.”

However: Most often “to be” verbs are often called weak or passive construction, and authors are encouraged to find stronger action verbs to take their place. For example, “He was walking” can be written simpler and more to the point as “He walked.” Even stronger is “He strode,” “He stomped” “He ambled,” etc. These strong verbs show his mood and attitude.

In the above linking verb examples, we could write stronger by describing actions and emotions. He was happy. How does happy look or feel? Our trip was fabulous—how?

“To be” verbs are often necessary, but be careful how you use them.

Can you think of other examples when we should or should not use “to be” verbs?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. This was a good lesson ... no, this lesson rocked!

  2. I always read posts like this with a skeptical eye, because too many people say it's passive VOICE simply because you're using 'to be' verbs (or they circle every use of "was" in your manuscript). As long as you know what effect you're going for, and that you've considered what the best verb is in any particular sentence (such as the way you have in this post), then "was" isn't a forbidden word. I doubt anyone took exception with "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." And who would tell Lee Child or Michael Connelly they're overusing 'was'?

    The secret is to know what you're doing.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. I pity the poor 'to be' verb - immortalized by Shakespeare and now shunned by writers. Honestly, if I need it, I'll use it; it all depends on the sentence.

  4. Thank you for the timely post. Last week I began a "Cool Verb" list. When my fingers are flying on the keyboard, sometimes the right verb doesn't flit into my brain. My list helps create strong action.

  5. Gee, I hadn't realized how pompous the "to be" forms sound in use.

  6. Neat lesson. Not so much rules as ripples of current that help the words flow.

  7. writing contest.......My blog Amish Stories is having its first ever contest this week. The First prize winner will win 2 tickets to tour the farm where the 1985 move "Witness" staring Harrison Ford and Kelly Mcgillis was made in Strasburg,Pa . This farm is now Amish owned, and the family has given permission for folks to tour their farm. This may be the last time anyone will be able to walk and see the same things that Harrison Ford and the other actors saw during the making of "Witness". The Witness tour should last about 2.5 hours. In addition to the Witness farm tour tickets, 1st prize winner will also receive 2 tickets for Jacobs choice. There will also be a 2nd place prize, which will be 2 tickets for the Amish Homestead. Please go to My blog for contest details, and more information on the prizes. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon county.

  8. Richard, it would be great if you commented on the original post - I think then people would be more apt to follow your link. It looks like spam now.

    Thank you for the reminder that there ARE times when using to be verbs are appropriate! I need to work on balance. I used to try so hard to make everything sound full of action, but sometimes WAS has its place.

  9. I regularly read 'The Blood-Red Pencil,' and the next time I work on something, I have 'a new thing' to analyze critically in my work.
    Over the course of time, I like the results. But knowing the 'rules,' means the writer must have some justification, some purpose when breaking them, i.e., does it work in the story? The very best writers got that way by making a science of it.

  10. Interesting post. I tend to use 'was' more than I should, and I'm constantly checking my sentences for stronger verbs.

    I do agree, however, that sometimes it's necessary. Depends on the sentence:)

    And Barbara, I love the idea of a 'cool verb' list. I do the same thing when I'm writing - I'm more focused on the scene and content than word usage.

  11. Great discussion of "to be" and its use in our language — it's one I invariably have with writers whose works I edit. Should this little verb be relegated to the trash bin? Definitely not! Should its use be limited to those places where no other verb fits without sounding awkward or forced? Perhaps...but not always. As has been noted here, "to be" has its place in even the best of writing.

    Bottom line: creating a well-written work is not the "piece of cake" some (who probably haven't done it in any significant amount) seem to think. The overwhelming number of choices and decisions that confront an author in the creation of a manuscript can be mindboggling. The "rules" fly at us from all directions like mosquitos on a summer evening. It's all about choices and balance and what works.

    Nice post, Heidi. Loved the "show don't tell" comparison in your comment, Christopher. A lesson that "rocks" has lots more appeal than one that's just "good."

  12. Thanks for all your input. I love the idea of a strong verb list. And yes, sometimes "was" is the only way to go!

  13. Great examples and suggested usage. Thanks for the reminders.

  14. Heidi, I always enjoy your blood-red penci posts. Nice refresher course.

  15. I am a student and my teacher is making us do this. It is challenging but i have to do it.


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