To Be or Not to Be: Avoiding Passive Verbs

Robin, Heather and I had been crit partners for months and I found their comments incredibly insightful and helpful. Meanwhile, an editor friend of mine took a crack at a few of my chapters and leveled the comment: “too many passive verbs, kill as many forms of the verb to be as you can.” I’d never heard this before and pleaded my case to Robin. I was like, “Have you ever heard of this before?” She was like, “Oh yeah, didn’t I ever call you out on that?” I was like, “No!” And she was like. “Do a search and start with was. See how many times you use it and try to substitute a more active or descriptive word whenever possible.” And I was like, Oh. My. God. I couldn’t believe I’d been with crit partners for two years now and no one ever told me this

I decided to spread the wealth. I had pages from another friend and I hit him with it. It was a five page short story and he used the word was 49 times. He rebutted with excerpts from famous authors where an overabundance of to be verbs dotted the pages. He reached out to some of his writer buddies and an argument ensued. In the end he relented and admitted he couldn’t deny that using more active verbs enhances the verbiage.

Now, it’s a problem for me. I start reading a new book and if the author suffers from this it’s like a bright red stop sign in my mind. I constantly ask, “What other word could she use here?” I’m slowly getting over it, but it’s a struggle. On the other hand, sometimes it’s the perfect word. Especially at the end of a paragraph or a chapter, when you want to end with a hard, quick sentence: like this from the first chapter of my novel, The Wives of Lucifer:

                                   And then I remembered. I was dead. Again.

Short, simple, powerful…it delivers a punch.

Here’s the guide I used to edit my writing. I found it at: There are others on the Internet to use so search for one that you find helpful.

What’s So Wrong with “To-Be” Verbs?

  1. The “to-be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.

  2. The “to-be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.

  3. The “to-be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.

  4. The “to-be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”

  5. The “to-be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”

Adapted from Ken Ward’s E-Prime article at

Problem-Solving Strategies to Eliminate the “To-Be” Verb

  1. Substitute-Sometimes a good replacement just pops into your brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie sure is good,” substitute the “to-be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie sure tastes good.”

  2. Rearrange-Start the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to-be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”

  3. Change another word in the sentence into a verb-For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” change the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.”

  4. Combine sentences-Look at the sentences before and after the one with the “to-be” verb to see if one of them can combine with the “to-be” verb sentence and so eliminate the “to-be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive young person was feeling that way because of the news story about the death of the homeless man,” combine as “The news story about the death of the homeless man saddened the sensitive child.”

Challenge: Randomly select a few pages of your writing and hit the search button for the word was. For each, try to find another more active or descriptive verb. Then move on to the other forms as outlined above.

Up Next from Caryn? A two-parter: The Battle: Writing the Protagonist vs. the Antagonist.



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

2 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be: Avoiding Passive Verbs”

  1. New reader. Nice informative way to help me move forward from the comatose post NaNo months. Tired of staring at this monstrosity without a clue how to dig in to editing. Keep up the great tips!

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