Sharpening Those Verbs

Quick–which of these three sentences makes the best read?

1. Victor was sick.

2. Victor felt sick.

3. Victor barfed on the rug.

Correct.  Number three.  Why?  The secret lies in the verbs.

Verbs come in four stages of interest.  Let’s take a look:


The most boring verb in the English language is to be.  This includes be, am, is, are, was, were, been, and being.  Yet many new writers use to be in four sentences out of five, and then they wonder why editors reject them.

To be bores your reader because the subject of the sentence merely exists (yawn) instead of acting (cool!).*


Several verbs can replace to be, including look, feel, sound, taste, seem, appear, become, and others.  “The dog is fluffy” or “My soup is salty” make for dull reading.  “The dog feels fluffy” and “My soup tastes salty” come off rather better.  However, these are still linking verbs.  Nothing really happens in any of these sentences, and this you want to avoid wherever you can.  (Sometimes you can’t, and that’s okay.  Sometimes.)


Any action verb trumps any linking verb.  But not all action verbs are created equal.  Have is an action verb.  So are get, give, run, and walk. Every one will interest your reader more than to be.  These verbs are so common and overused, however, that they’ve lost all meaning.  Some seriously boring examples:

Shelby got a book from the table.

Larry gave the dog a bone.

The twins ran from the room.

Willis walked sadly away.

By all rights, these sentences should be just fine.  They avoid linking verbs and use action.  But these sentence don’t sparkle.  The verbs plod and thud, and they send the reader to sleep.  Instead, try . . .


These verbs might leap off the page or quietly fascinate.  They also specify.  They create a sharp mental picture of whatever the subject of the sentence is doing.  Let’s spiffy up those boring examples with some  better verbs:

Shelby snatched a book from the table.

Larry tossed the dog a bone.

The twins bolted from the room.

Willis plodded away. (Notice that with the addition of a better verb, we can also eliminate the adverb and tighten the sentence.)

See the difference?  So use that search function to seek out and destroy be in all its forms.  Your writing will instantly snap and sparkle.

*Notice I’m talking about to be as a stand-alone verb, not as an auxiliary (or helping) verb.  “I am destroying the world” doesn’t count as using to be, since destroy is the main verb.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Sharpening Those Verbs — 2 Comments

  1. Steven, I’m glad you included your footnote. The poor verb “to be” has been badly damaged by the confusion between auxiliary verbs and passive construction.

    The result is what I think of as CNN-Speak: “The White House today announcing a new policy.”

    Not English. but it doesn’t use “is” so it must be OK!

    (I have no idea why a construction such as “The White House announced a new policy” is also apparently verboten.)

    I nuked the grammar checker on my word processor years ago just on general principles (if my grammar isn’t perfect at least the mistakes I make are mine own), but when I played with the checker, every time I used a form of the verb “to be” it would spank me, no matter what the grammatical intention.)


  2. If you have ever driven one of the latest hybrid cars, they have it set up now so that it trains you how to drive: you get a green leaf if you are driving in a less-fuel-consumptive way, and at the end of the trip you get a score, which you can then compare to previous scores, which the car computer kindly keeps track of for you. Particularly for the naturally competitive among us (i.e. men) this rapidly pushes them towards a highly energy-efficient driving style. My husband will not say, “Look, I have been SO efficient this trip!” but will instead say “Look, I got a score of 35!” There are vast websites devoted to this kind of needle match; google on ‘hypermiling’ if you want to know more.
    And we can draw an analogy here to word usage. If the grammar-check algorithms are NOT CORRECT, they will inevitably force language use into a not-correct direction. We must combat this to the last ditch. Aux armes, citoyens!