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Avoiding Weak Verbs and Passive Voice:

Linking verbs include the following forms of the verb to be: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been. Contractions such as I'm, we're, and he's are also built upon linking verbs and express a state of being. Many writers, teachers, and professionals consider these verbs weak because they do not express any action; instead, they simply tell the reader that something exists.

Passive voice consists of a form of "be" and a past participle (look for -ed endings):

The student's name was mentioned in the newspaper.

Passive voice tends to conceal rather than reveal information. In the sample sentence above, we do not know who mentioned the student's name or why he or she mentioned it. The following sentences also conceal important information:

  • The decision was made. (Who made the decision?)
  • The telephone bill was paid last week. (Who paid it?)
  • The policeman was concerned by the stories. After hearing them, he was convinced that at least one person had committed a serious crime. (Whew! The second sentence drags on.)

On the other hand, these revisions provide clear evidence of "who did what to whom":

  • His parents paid the phone bill last week.
  • The senator made the decision.
  • The stories worried the policeman. He knew, after hearing them, that at least one person had committed a serious crime.

Weak verbs allow sentences to ramble on; often the predicates of such sentences are too lengthy and contain confusing prepositional phrases:

Both Becky Crawley and Lily Bart are looked upon with disfavor on the very evenings of their greatest triumphs in front of audiences.

A revision of this sentence might eliminate some of the unneeded prepositional phrases and clearly state who disapproves of Becky and Lily:

Their audiences disapprove of Becky Crawley and Lily Bart even on the evenings of their greatest theatrical triumphs.

The next sentence should explain how the audiences disapproved of the women.

Expanding "Code Words"

How often do you read (or write) a sentence such as this:

"Shakespeare depicts Macbeth's changing persona."

Isn't "persona" a loaded word? Your reader might not understand what the word "persona" implies; Macbeth is a pretty complicated character! How about:

"Shakespeare depicts Macbeth's gradual metamorphosis from a loyal supporter of the king to an uncertain conspirator to, finally, a murderer and tyrant."

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