To Be or Just Be? Strength in Verbs

I was struck this evening. Not by a car or a Mack truck, but by a verb. Actually, a certain type of verb.

Now, I realize I just lost some of you, and that’s okay. But before you go scampering off, please understand that while grammar geekiness isn’t for everyone, it’s essential for me. It’s why I breathe.

But back to what I was saying…

I was struck by my overuse of “helping” verbs, which are really not very helpful at all. For an Instagram post, which featured remnants of our Christmas tree in the form of a blob of needles covering the area of the living room floor, with a perfect circle where the tree stood mere moments earlier, I wrote, “All that’s left of the Christmas tree. Now we will just be pining away for next year.”

I wish I could go back and edit. You see, if I had it to do over (there’s probably a way but I’m too lazy to figure it out, and besides, then how could I use it as an example?) I would rewrite it as “All that’s left of the Christmas tree. Now we will pine away for next year.” See the difference? I took out the helping verb.

This is a nasty habit I have, always throwing in helping verbs that aren’t helpful at all. When I think of something helpful, I imagine something that nudges another along, not in a forceful way, but in an encouraging way. Like wink wink, nudge nudge. A little push with the shoulder to get it moving.

But so many times, helping verbs diminish the strength of perfectly good verbs that can tell the entire action on their own.

Going back to my example, notice how much stronger the action is in the revision. In the original, the first verb you read is “be,” which is weak. It’s the helper, moving you along to “pining.” Is it technically wrong? No. Would it be graded down in a writing class? Maybe.

In the revision, the first verb you come across is “pine,” which, while not exactly awe-inspiring, is still stronger than “be.” So in this case, did the helping verb help? I’d say not only was it unnecessary, it weakened the impact (and the pun) of the stronger verb.

Writing is hard. Editing is harder. Editing your own work is nearly impossible. It can be done, but you need an amazing ability to distance yourself from your copy and look at it through an editor’s eyes, not your own. As you write, save yourself a headache or two and limit your use of helping verbs. You’ll have to take them out later anyway.

Strengthen your prose and create more impact with stronger, more complex verbs that move readers quickly through the scene, gasping for more.

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One thought on “To Be or Just Be? Strength in Verbs

  1. I’m getting caught up on reading e-mails.

    We often use helping verbs as a more acceptable filler word (instead of “uh” and “you know”) when we speak. When we write we use helping verbs to sneak up on our main idea, as if we are afraid to release it too quickly, bring it up in such a way that scares our reader.

    Thank you for your entertaining and corrective blog entry!

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