Ever get the dreaded editor’s comment on your manuscript “You need stronger verbs.” Editors describe your verbs as passive, weak, dead or flat? Yep! You know you have.
As promised, today’s post is about weak verbs. The second hazard mentioned in Joyce Ellis’ booklet 8 Hazards of Grammar: lessons for authors on the snags of the English language. If you missed my last post (link), let me mention here I consider Joyce the Queen of Grammar, and I am but her lowly jester. I’ve always found her explanations far more interesting than dull grammar books. I will be sprinkling my own commentary alongside her words.
Weak verbs are boring
Weak verbs are the ones we worked so hard to learn in school. Do you recall diagramming sentences to identify all the parts of speech? (Boring like a root canal.) Imagine those parts of speech as body parts and verbs are arms.
Weak verbs are thin muscled and at times arthritic.
While action verbs are muscular and strong. You can’t exercise to get stronger verb muscles. You have to kill the weak verbs and replace them with more active and specific verbs. Weak verbs weaken the whole manuscript.
The verbs that need genocide are:
To be verbs, also called state-of-being verbs may be scattered throughout a manuscript. You know them and their many tenses: is, am, was, were, will be, had been, were being and the list goes on. State-of-being verbs are important but are often overused.
Joyce Ellis refers to them as mostly dead. Her examples below help explain what she means. She refers to defibrillating dead verbs.
Mostly dead: Judith was unable to find many writers who actually followed her guidelines.
Defibrillated: Judith found few writers who…
Lifeless: After a mere 72 rejections, the author’s hopes were gone.
Vibrant: …the author’s hopes disintegrated.
Joyce warns against the troublesome twins, there is and there are:
Feeble: There were no words to describe…
Stronger: No words could describe…
Comatose: There are three categories of doubters people fall into.
More alive: Doubters fall into three categories.
When I hear the term passive verb I think of a bystander at an auto accident. Observant but not helping.
Another excerpt from 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar.
Passive verb: An active verb shows us that a doer did something. A passive verb tells us something was done to someone. Active verbs allow for a more vivid word picture.
Passive: Absalom’s rebellion was caused (passive) by King David’s inattentiveness.
Active: King David’s inattentiveness ignited Absalom’s rebellious spirit.
The word by often betrays a passive verb. If you know who did the action, tell us up front.
Joyce gives a great guideline for discerning when to use passive verbs. “Save them for when the doer is unknown or unimportant.” See how she makes grammar interesting.
I’ll add my image here. A waiter pouring water while my characters have dinner. The waiter is there to help my readers remember we are in a restaurant but no one cares about him unless he pulls a knife and stabs our hero. (I digress.) Back to Joyce’s examples.
Unknown: The murder was committed last night. (Cops don’t know yet who whacked the guy.)
Unimportant: The film was shown in its entirety. (Monsieur Projectionist doesn’t expect credit.)
Her bottom line regarding weak verbs: Keep verbs alive and active wherever possible.
Go forth and murder weak passive verbs sitting on the sidelines pointing to the action. Recruit some strong action verbs. After the culling, read through your manuscript. I’m sure you’ll find it stronger, more vibrant with the seal of professionalism.
What passive verb are your go to words? What tips do you have for editing them out?
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