What is the Verb of Being?

person writing with a fountain pen

In traditional grammar and pedagogical grammar, a verb that does not show action but 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. Contrast with verb of doing (dynamic verb).

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.

Examples of Verbs of Being

  • "I am the Monster, and I will strike again." (Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, The Monster of Florence. Grand Central, 2008)
  • "We are the monsters now, but there is no Child of Water to help us." (John Wilson, Victorio's War. Orca, 2012)
  • "Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful." (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "Neanderthals were the first people to adapt to a truly cold climate. In the intense cold of northern Europe they often set up home in caves and rock shelters." (Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Reed Books, 1994)
  • "Gila monsters appear to be torpid and slow moving but react very quickly when disturbed." (Bruce Grubbs, Desert Sense: Camping, Hiking & Biking in Hot, Dry Climates. Mountaineers Books, 2004)

Stylistic Advice: Opposition to Verbs of Being

  • "Active verbs do something. Inactive verbs are something. You will gain power over readers if you change ​verbs of being such as is, was, and will be to verbs of motion and action.Bad
    • A grandfather clock was in one corner, and three books were on top of it.
    • Better
    • A grandfather clock towered in one corner, and three books lay on top of it." (Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Penguin, 1985)
  • " Being verbs are, or they were, or they have been. But they simply won't do. Here's an example:Major League Baseball was the first sports organization to institute the concept of free agency for its players. Major League Baseball created free agency.
    • Action verbs serve no greater service to English than when they replace a noun, one that just sits there as a reflection of the subject and the beneficiary of a being verb." (Robert M. Knight, Writing Public Prose: How to Write Clearly, Crisply, and Concisely. Marion Street Press, 2012)

Stylistic Advice: In Defense of Verbs of Being

"Let's put this canard to bed forever: there is no virtue in simply avoiding 'being' verbs. They are not evil and their use will not conjure up Satan himself. Nevertheless, some people still decree that you should never use any verb on this list: 'is, are, was, were, to be, been, being.' Yet these verbs:

  • Convey tense and capture the subtlety of when things happen; without them, we couldn't say, 'We are going to buy donuts for our meeting with HR, so put on your eatin' pants.' Or 'The CEO discovered that even as his company's profits rose, the Board of Directors was interviewing his replacement.'
  • Describe a state of being: In ordinary life, you might say, 'The melon is ripe.' Again, there is no other way to express that idea. In business, you might write, 'There is no other way to interpret this data.'

"'Being' verbs are verbs the English language needs, and you would have to twist many sentences into pretzels to avoid them completely." (Jane Curry and Diana Young, Be a Brilliant Business Writer: Write Well, Write Fast, and Whip the Competition. Ten Speed Press, 2010)

Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be"

"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 [of Shakespeare's Hamlet], 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." (Crystal Downing, "Reading Hamlet." Hamlet by William Shakespeare, edited by Joseph Pearce.

Ignatius Press, 2008)

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