For my first full-time job, I worked as a copywriter. Because I was such a novice, my editor kept finding passive constructions in my writing and, rightfully, red-inking them.
But something puzzled me. If I wrote a sentence like “Melanie is a superb human being,” he would red-ink that too, marking it as passive.
Now, that sentence is not passive. (Its truthfulness may be suspect, but that’s a different post.) You can tell because there’s no other verb participle in it — just “is.”
Eventually I realized that he was categorizing any use of auxiliary verbs (also called helping verbs) as a passive construction. But technically, they’re different.
While passive constructions will often use forms of “is” and “has,” they also include other verbs.
The weak verbs: “is” and “has”
Even though he had his terminology a bit mixed up, my boss was right. Forms of “is” and “has” are weak. Especially when you use them in copy, slogans, taglines, or any other type of text where you should economize on words.
Here’s an example:
Marjorie is the best designer I’ve ever worked with.
That doesn’t seem so bad. But let’s say you want to reword it to take out the “is.” You might try:
Marjorie creates the most beautiful designs I’ve ever seen.
Of course, the two statements don’t mean exactly the same thing. But notice that the second provides more description and specificity.
That’s the point. Using more active verbs forces you to be specific: you have to say exactly how or why Marjorie is so fantastic.
It’s more interesting, because it gives the reader more detail.
Eliminating weak verbs makes your writing more concise, too
Just today, a co-worker called me on this exact point. I had written, “Let’s define what web hosting is.” It looked fine to me.
She edited it to say, “Let’s define web hosting.”
Dang. That’s much better. It gets right to the point, without that pesky “what” and “is” buzzing around like Houston mosquitoes in summertime.
Examples of stronger verbs
It can be tricky to avoid using “is.” How would you rephrase the following?
- Acme widgets are the best-selling widgets.
- Acme is the nation’s leading maker of widgets.
- Acme widgets are a great value.
Some options include:
- Acme widgets outsell the competition.
- Acme leads the nation in widget manufacturing.
- Acme widgets deliver performance and value.
I’ve found strong, active verbs like “provide,” “deliver,” and “offer” invaluable in creating colorful, descriptive copy.
How about you? What are your favorite verbs, and your most hated ones?