Why active verbs trump “to be” words

Using lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture in the reader's mind

FREQUENT USE of “to be” verbs typically results in weak or passive writing, while active writing draws readers in and keeps them interested. Using lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture in the reader’s mind.

Your child might write a sentence like this:

My dogs were fast.

While true, it certainly doesn’t conjure up a concrete image. Notice how much more descriptively your child could express his dogs’ speed by using active verbs:

My dogs tore around the field.
My dogs flew like the wind.
My dogs raced across the grass.

What a difference! Coupled with a descriptive prepositional phrase, active verbs lend precise meaning to a once-vague sentence.

You’ll never hear me say it’s wrong or bad to use “to be” verbs; I use them myself! Just help your children become aware of how often they use words like “is” and “was,” and train them not to use these words in excess.

What Are “To Be” Words?

Every student should memorize this short list:

  • is
  • am
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been

Ways to Avoid “To Be” Verbs

Teach your kids to choose active, descriptive verbs. Sometimes a writer can simply replace a “to be” verb with a more specific verb. Other times, he must rearrange the sentence in order for his writing to still make sense. The more sentence variations a student has in his tool kit, the easier it becomes for him to rearrange sentences.

Students should avoid “to be” words when:

  1. Another verb will make the point more clearly.
  2. They find they have already used too many “to be” words.
  3. The writing lacks action.

Weak: Vegetables were being sold by farmers at the produce stand.
Active: Farmers sold vegetables at the produce stand

Weak: A glass of orange juice was refreshing to Monroe.
Active: Monroe drank a refreshing glass of orange juice.

Weak: The first step is to get soap, a bucket, and some old rags.
Active: First, gather soap, a bucket, and some old rags.

Weak: Being lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.
Active: Lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.

Weak: Rowan is much taller than Seth.
Active: Rowan towers over Seth.

Weak: Janna is a disciplined, hardworking pitcher for the Rockets.
Active: Hardworking and disciplined, Janna pitches for the Rockets.

Weak: My bike was hit by a car which was being driven by an elderly lady who was in an old sedan.
Active: An elderly lady driving an old sedan struck my bike.

Should We Ban Them?

“To be” verbs play an important role in our language. However, unless you train your child to watch for, avoid, and judiciously replace these words, they will dominate his writing.

Active verbs speak powerfully, while weak verbs say little. {via WriteShop}WriteShop doesn’t forbid their use, but early on in WriteShop I, assignments begin to limit the number of “to be” words a student may use in each composition. To help students avoid “to be” words, WriteShop I encourages them to expand their vocabulary and use sentence variations.

Strong verb use doesn’t stop when a child graduates from high school. Several years ago, a friend took an English class at our local community college. My friend said the instructor only allowed his college students one form of “to be” per typed page!

It’s not that these words should be forever banned; it’s just that active verbs speak powerfully, while weak verbs say little. Limiting students’ use of “to be” verbs forces them to think about their sentence structure and choose their words more wisely.

Your Turn!

  1. Give your children the list of weak sentences only (above). See if they can come up with ways to replace the “to be” word in each. Share a few of their new sentences in the comments!
  2. Have students read through a story or report they wrote recently. Instruct them to use a red pencil to circle every “to be” verb they find (sometimes it helps to read the writing piece backwards, starting from the last word). Now ask them to rewrite one or two of these sentences, using strong, active verbs instead of “to be” words.

Copyright 2012 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Photo: Meagan Wooley, courtesy of Creative Commons.
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