Friday, August 31, 2012

My Verbs are Going Nowhere and Other Crimes of Syntax

"The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense." - from the Internet


 I constantly remind my students, “As a writer, your two new best friends are verbs and nouns.”

Verbs are the action words, they make your characters and settings move, and/or they create more clarity. But not all verbs are created equal, and some verb combinations do more harm. For example, the verb 'to be’ is the most overused verb in our language. (The critical reader will notice I used a form of it five times already in the title and passage. More on that later.)

To be clear, let’s conjugate ‘to be’:
Simple present :

I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are,
Simple past :

I was, you were. He /she/it was, we were, they were

(I know most of you know this already, but I once had a junior in my AP class insist ‘I am’ and ‘she was’ aren’t from the verb ‘to be.’)

Contemporary writing requires a more active tense of the verb: I have already discussed crimes of passive voice (). This relates, and goes a step further.

Let’s look at an example of a beige sentence.

He was sitting by the window and he noticed a girl who was running with her dog. They were frolicking in the yard.

Grammatically, the sentence is correct. But read it aloud and the words get stuck on your tongue. It suffers from too many auxiliary verbs. An occasional use of this form is okay, but when you load an entire paragraph with to be verbs, the writing suffers in many ways.

Was sitting, was running, were frolicking all use ‘to be’ as helping verbs. But the verbs don’t need help. If you rewrite the sentence by crisping the verbs, and using a non-essential clause, the sentence smoothes out:
He sat by the window and noticed a girl and her dog, running and frolicking in the yard.

The diction is cleaner and moves the reader into more important aspects of the manuscript. The non essential clause provides additional detail, but does not make the sentence more or less correct. Yes, again I used a form of to be. Sometimes it's necessary. Most of the time you can find a better verb or form.

Here is another example of bland prose:

He was sitting next to the TV. His dog was at his feet and he was sipping coffee. He was surprised at what came across the screen.

Is the dog drinking coffee or the mysterious He? And what was the dog doing at his feet? The reader is supposed to see the man is excited by the TV, but the action is too static from lack of tension and abstract, vague imagery.


Cal sat adjacent to the TV sipping a cup of coffee; his dog Max lounged at his feet. Cal just about dropped his coffee when he saw his wife's face come across the screen.

Notice how the reader becomes slightly more engaged by the activity and specific detail. The verbs are active. But do we care enough to keep reading?

Active verbs create tension. A good verb simplifies, clarifies, yet also provides more complex dimensions.

As Cal sipped his coffee in front of the TV and Max lay at his feet, his hands trembled when he saw his wife’s face on the screen.

In this case we get a mental movie of the action, and dramatic tension. The reader wonders why do his hands tremble?
something is not right with Cal’s wife’s appearance on TV.

Go through a beginning of one of your manuscripts and circle how many to be verbs you have. Try substituting a more specific verb, or rewrite the sentences to pare them down.

An easy way to find them using Word is to click on FIND and type in various forms of ‘to be’, (was, is, were, are,) Mark these on your hard copy of the draft so you can substitute better verbs.

Pay attention to your syntax.

For a detailed explanation of verb functions, see

Grammar Bytes, is phenomenal. Since the inception of a whole language approach to English, grammar is rarely taught in schools any more. Diagramming sentences resembles math problems, but if you want to appear as an intelligent life form, grammar is a necessary evil. This site provides crucial information and exercises to strengthen your syntax.

Happy Writing.

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