Dead verbs are the bane of English teachers because they just take up space. The typical list includes 23 verbs -- "is," "are," "was," "were," "am," "has," "have," "had," "be," "been," "look," "take," "took," "make," "run," "ran," "go," "went," "gone," "do," "did," "came," "come" -- and "ing" verbs. All add little to explain the action. Some teachers ban their use; others encourage students to rephrase sentences where possible. Many teachers hold mock funerals to remind students which verbs should be dead and buried.
The "to be" verbs -- "is," "am," "was," "were," "be," "being" and "been" -- are vague and lack specific examples. The sentence "He was upset about his grade" doesn't explain what grade he received nor why he was upset about it. The revised sentence includes an explanation: "He believed his grade of 'C' unfairly labeled his in-depth paper as average." Sometimes, by giving a state of being, "to be" verbs imply false permanence. "She is happy" implies that she's always happy, when in fact, no one is happy all the time. Revising the sentence to "Sunshine and a good meal make her happy" explains the types of things that make her happy.
The common use of verbs ending in "ing" makes writing passive and dull rather than active and exciting. Fortunately, it's easy to turn these sentences from dull to dramatic simply by substituting another verb. Changing "He was running" to "He ran" instantly gives the sentence more pep. Substituting a more descriptive verb makes the sentence even more alive. By writing instead that he sprinted or dashed, the reader actually pictures him in action, picking up speed and passing other runners.
Change Sentence Order
Another way to eliminate dead verbs and make writing more vivid is to change the sentence around. Instead of "The music was written by Mozart," change the sentence order to "Mozart wrote the music." That simple change eliminates the dead verb "was" and immediately converts the sentence from passive to active voice.
Since dead verbs are stagnant and not descriptive, the sentences that contain them are surrounded by additional sentences that clarify the action. Revise your writing by combining words and ideas from the sentences that apply to the action surrounding the dead verb. For example, the sentence "She was happy" needs the clarification of the next sentence, "She enjoyed making crafts." Combine the two into "She happily enjoyed making crafts." The next revision eliminates the dead verb "making" by substituting a word that describes the type of craft. "She happily enjoyed painting crafts." The revisions also make the writing concise and more interesting.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is an award-winning writer in the Washington, DC area. She writes nationally for newspapers, magazines and websites on topics including careers, education, women, marketing, advertising and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.