Verbs Again

Many times we use sentences that have clauses with a second verb in them. It’s important to keep the sense of time accurate. I liken it to keeping the boat on an even keel. We don’t want to lose balance, rocking the boat, and potentially ending up in a shipwreck.

I’d like to show some verb tenses and examples of how they can be used.


She knows the parade passes by her house every year.


I hear that you fell and broke your leg. What I don’t understand is why you climbed that tree in the first place.


I rushed out to the street when tires crunched, and a voice called for help.

past/prior past

We saw that George had hurt himself in a riding accident two years ago. He ignored the trainer’s instructions.

In this case, we are using the past tense to say that we knew about George’s accident. Then we use the prior past (often with “had”) to show that the action happened even earlier. Once that prior past is established  we don’t always need to include “had” in the verbs for the reader to know that we are still talking about the prior past. It can be done to reinforce that past setting but isn’t always necessary. You don’t want to end up with too many “had had’s.”

Above all, don’t mix your verb tenses randomly or you will confuse the reader and frustrate them, sometimes causing them to close your book forever.

We don’t want that to happen.


Strong Verbs

In rewriting our drafts, we have an opportunity to add punch to flagging sentences. Take a closer look at your verbs. Do they accurately describe what you want to say, or do they merely describe it adequately?

One of the most obvious ways of cleaning up weak verbs is by replacing verbs that are in the progressive tense (ongoing action), if possible.

Progressive tense verbs usually have an auxiliary verb like to have or to be.

Example of progressive tenses:

Past Progressive – I was driving.

Present Progressive – I am driving.

Future Progressive – I will be driving.

Sometimes these are exactly the tenses you want to suit what you are trying to say, but often, especially in the past and present tenses, a change can help to make the writing snappier.

I was driving” could be “I drove.”

I am driving” could be “I drive.”

I will be driving” could be “I will drive.” (This one is trickier and only works if the meaning is not affected.)


Generally, a weak verb is defined as one whose base form doesn’t change when it is put into the past tense.

For example:

walk, walked

jump, jumped

love, loved

move, moved

work, worked

This kind of verb can be made more interesting by using stronger verbs, ones whose base form does change in the past tense. For example:

give, gave

bring, brought

think, thought

sleep, slept


Besides choosing these stronger verbs, there is still more you can do. Some verbs (whether they are considered weak or strong by the above definition) could almost always be improved by replacing them with something more interesting. Take ordinary, overused verbs, and replace them with punchier, more precise ones. You might even want to try using a thesaurus to find alternate verbs to use.

Here are some fairly boring verbs that can often be replaced with something better.

go (went)

be (was, were, are, am)


any verb showing movement (walk, run)

I went to the corner store” could be made so much better with a verb that gives us more information. These are not the best, but they’re sure better than “went.”

I hurried to the corner store.

I sauntered to the corner store.

I dashed to the corner store.

You can do this with many ordinary verbs and make your writing more precise to say exactly what you mean. But just as with so many writing skills we use, be careful not to overdo it.




Passive Verbs

Here are three sentence patterns. It is the third one that I’d like to talk about most today.

  1. We met this one in the previous post, basically the subject and the verb. We can add modifiers to make it more interesting.

The wintery sky changed dramatically.

  1. The subject, verb, and a direct object.

The dog bit his master.

  1. The subject and a passive voice verb (a verb that does not take a direct object. In fact, if we use sentence #2 as an example, the former object (the master) becomes the subject and the former subject (the dog) becomes the object. The passive verb tells us that something has been done to the subject.


The master was bitten by the dog.

The house was built by the carpenter.

The car was driven by Anneli.

***Note that the passive voice (as in the examples above) is not usually the preferred choice for writers of novels. The active voice makes for much better drama. Consider these two ways of writing:


The Corolla was driven up the new highway by Marlie. A bear was seen by her. The car was being parked at the side of the road by Marlie. The camera was picked up by her shaking hands. Just then, she was charged by the bear.


Marlie drove up the Corolla up the new highway. She saw a bear. Marlie parked the car at the side of the road. Her shaking hands picked up the camera. Just then, the bear charged her.


The passive voice works well in some cases, and has its uses, but for the most part, the active verb form is better. In some cases, the passive verb form is best.

For example, we use the passive verb if something happened to someone but we don’t know who did it:

My neighbour was robbed.

The pedestrian was knocked over.

The money was taken.

Take care to check your verb forms and only use the passive form if it is called for. Needless use of the passive verb form takes the punch out of your writing.

To be or not to be ….


The verb “to be” has been causing trouble since Shakespeare’s time and possibly even longer.

I became aware of the potential damage this verb could cause when I joined the local writers’ club, many years ago. The authors in this group provide mutual help and support. Part of each meeting is devoted to readings. Writers may read a sample of their work and have it critiqued by the other members.

I had worked on a little story that I thought was not bad, so I volunteered to read it. My hands shook and my face turned bright red as I stammered through two pages of writing. Nervously, I awaited the critiquing. I was shocked to hear that all my writing and rewriting and polishing was still lacking, and, swallowing lumps of misplaced pride in my work, I began to learn how to write.

I will never forget that first critiquing comment. “Right at the beginning, you used the words ‘there were.’”

Yes, I thought. What’s wrong with that?

“You should avoid the verb ‘to be’ if at all possible.”

This was new to me. Wasn’t “to be” the most basic of verbs? Why not use it?

I didn’t volunteer to read aloud for the group again for a long, long time—it took a while to regain my confidence—but I listened carefully and made notes when others had their work critiqued. I learned SO much! I am still learning every day.

Today, I’d like to share with you what I found out about using “to be.”

It’s not that there is anything wrong with “to be” in all its forms and tenses; the problem is that when you use it, you’re not using anything better. “To be” is rather static, inactive, and boring. Most sentences using this weak verb can be rephrased to become much more interesting, and, if not action-packed, at least not comatose.

Let’s take some examples:


There were about a hundred people in the street.

Now, imagine the scene. Surely these one hundred people were not simply standing limply in the street. I have to come up with a good strong verb; one that is active, or makes us feel that action is imminent.


In the street, one hundred people … milled around, shook their fists, threw rocks (choose one of many possibilities)….

Or maybe: One hundred people shouted for justice in the street.


A cat was in the yard.


A stray cay slunk across the yard.

In each case, by shuffling the words around, we added action and interest.

Naturally, we sometimes need to use the verb “to be,” but when you are writing, be aware of it in its many forms and, if possible, try to substitute a stronger, more active verb.

Here are some of the variations of “to be”: is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, was being, were being.

Next time you’re writing, look back at a section of your work and mark all the cases of the verb “to be.” Then see if you can find a way to improve the text by exchanging “to be” for a stronger verb. You may have to do some re-arranging of words and phrases, but in the end, it will probably make your story sing where previously it only droned.