You might be asking yourself what “to be” verbs really are. There is a simple explanation. It is a group of verbs that are commonly used in all kinds of writing. You may have been using them without knowing it. You may be reading them right now as you are wondering why this paragraph seems so choppy.
We’re talking state of being (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been). That’s what we call those “to be” verbs.
Overusing state of being verbs can give your writing some stubborn setbacks, like false impressions, vague generalizations, and confusing subjects. Here’s how to spot them, find the right substitution, and write with more illustration.
Identifying “To Be” Verbs
Remember, this group of verbs includes is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been; try to commit them to memory. The next step is to circle or highlight them in your drafts. Do you notice quite a few of them in almost every sentence? Or, is there a large cluster of them in several sentences in a row? That may be a clue that you’re overusing using those state of being verbs.
Are They Ever Necessary?
Sometimes, a “to be” verb is the only verb that fits. In this case, it’s most likely accomplishing one of these tasks:
- Conveying existence – I am your daughter.
- Explaining location – Dad is out of town.
- Giving emphasis or identity – Those are the right ones.
- Adding description – That coffee has been in the pantry too long.
- Timeframes – The party is starting!
While it’s a good idea to reduce the number of “to be” verbs in your writing, they’re more welcome in the narrative writing process, even if only for use as a place-mark when you’re on the hunt for a more vibrant, expressive verb. For example, this thought has plenty of “to be” verbs, but they don’t necessarily hurt the overall idea:
At that point, I just wasn’t sure about anything. I had been a bit of an adventurous soul, but this was beyond me; I was astounded. Could this path be the way for me?
Use “to be” verbs to strengthen your writing, but never out of laziness. Can they be replaced? Would the replacement be clearer? If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to check for a better verb.
Replacing “To Be” Verbs
If you’ve recognized an abundance of these simple verbs in your own writing and want to cut down on them, try some of these steps to shift your aim to more accurate, active verbs:
- Identify the “to be” verbs. Try circling them!
I am not a fan of baseball. [Too vague]
Baseball bores me. [A more direct and expressive choice]
- Swap out nondescript nouns like this, those, and that, for a better fitting noun/verb combination.
These are the apples I want. They are red and look juicy. This bag is for my pie.
I chose the reddest, juiciest apples for my pie.
- Rearrange your sentence structure or swap the subject (and change the passive voice to an active one at the same time).
The roof was ripped off of the house by a strong wind.
A strong wind ripped the roof off of the house.
- Combine two or more choppy sentences into one cohesive thought.
I was stung by a bee yesterday. Today, my foot is swollen and red.
I blame the swelling and redness of my foot on yesterday’s bee sting.
Taking note of the number of “to be” verbs in your paragraphs is a good habit to get into, and the practice can definitely encourage you to use a more active vocabulary. Once you have the hang of identifying these verbs, decide whether or not they add to or take away from your writing and make any necessary corrections. Just remember, sometimes a state of being verb is acting as a link between the parts of your sentence and cannot be replaced—but that’s okay! Ultimately, the choice to keep or lose a “to be” verb is your own.