What Is a Verb of Being?

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In traditional grammar and pedagogical grammar, a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. In other words, a state-of-being verb identifies who or what a noun is, was, or will be. Although in English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been), other verbs (such as become, seem, appear) can also function as verbs of being. Compare them with stative verbs, and contrast them with verbs of doing (dynamic verbs), or action verbs.

Stylistic Advice: Avoid "Be" When You Can

Unfortunately, to be verbs do not make for the most exciting writing to read when a piece is overloaded with them (buzzing with "be"s). Action verbs are stronger than to be verbs because they portray more imagery. Action verbs also make for more impactful, shorter sentences, as to be verbs often are found in passive sentences as well. Replace being verbs where you can, during your editing round of writing your piece. (The drafting phase is for getting your information organized and put together.) Not all being verbs or even passive voice can be avoided, of course, but where they can be replaced, your sentences will be livelier and punchier and will flow more quickly.

Improving Examples

Compare the following sentences and their improvements:

  • Jerry was working hard.
  • Jerry worked hard.
  • Mary is a big fan of Bach.
  • Mary adores Bach.

In the latter improvement, the verb was changed completely, to be more descriptive.

Excising Passive Voice

To get rid of passive voice, turn the sentence around and start with the doer of the action rather than the object of the action. See the difference between:

  • Their house was invaded by bugs.
  • Bugs invaded their house.
  • The package was sent by Bob.
  • Bob sent the package.

Passive voice has its place, such as when the result is more important than who did the action. For example, "The record low temperature was broken last night, after 104 years," or when the actor is unknown, such as in, "It's recommended to have the furnace serviced once per year." (Though these sentences still could be revised out of passive by adding subjects and recasting them, such as "We hit a record low last night, breaking a 104-year record" and "Manufacturers recommend having...")

Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be"

One of the most famous being verb sentences surely is the famous soliloquy of Hamlet's, in his eponymous Shakespearean play. Author Crystal Downing reminds us, though, that people need to take into account the fact that the speech is written in iambic pentameter when working out its meaning:

"When people pronounce Hamlet's famous line, they usually emphasize the 'that,' as though Hamlet cannot 'make up his mind' about killing himself: 'To be, or not to be—that is the question.' Though the soliloquy from Act 3, scene I, does indeed proceed to discuss the consequences of suicide, there is something far more subtle going on than 'shall I, or shan't I?' Significantly, Shakespeare's iambic pentameter line accents five words, but never 'that': To BE, or NOT to BE—that IS the question. What we see here is an emphasis on the verb of being; even the word 'not' serves to modify the 'to be' verb. Hamlet's soliloquy, as written by Shakespeare in his preferred blank verse format, renders not merely a mental battle over suicide; it expresses a desire to interpret the meaning of existence itself, what it means 'to be.' A failure to discover that meaning, then, elicits Hamlet's thoughts about suicide." ("Reading 'Hamlet.'" 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare, edited by Joseph Pearce. Ignatius Press, 2008)