The Use of “Are” and “Was” and Vague Verbs

As a personal challenge to myself, while writing fiction — and essays for that matter — I try to avoid indistinct verbs — “are,” “is,” “was,” and the like. This arises from a variety of conversations we had in my writers group, when we would occasionally vilify vague verbs as part of the culprit in that most heinous crime: shaky prose. To aid the visual landscape of your writing, we would say, try to avoid “was” and its kith. Use instead the verbs that actually say what your characters do in the scenery.

It’s an interesting piece of advice, because it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the problem.

Go read your most favorite prose writers and you’ll find so called “vague” verbs everywhere, but if these writers know their stuff and do it well you will find “vague” verbs scattered in the tangible landscapes that the wordsmiths carve with their mastery of language in general. If some “vague” verb fits where they put it, then it must be the right word. “Vague” verbs prove neither a gross error nor a necessary symptom of one.

That said, I still heartily condone this exercise: in any event when you find yourself inclined to use some “vague” verb, attempt to rewrite the sentence without that verb. In the long run, you’ll find yourself using “vague” verbs still, but after you’ve learned a variety of lessons about how verbs function. If you attempt to eliminate “vague” verbs from your writing, you’ll be forced to make a close study of what verbs actually do — how verbs function — how they read and effect the flow of prose — how one verb does something and how another verb does something else.

Verbs enact the story of a sentence, see.

Mastery of anything benefits by a reductionist scrutiny; a larger example might be stripped bare to merer parts and examined in a more controlled experiment. A novel might be reduced to a short story, and its functions can be better examined. A short story might be reduced to a summary. A summary might be reduced to a sentence. A sentence is to a story what an atom is to a world.

The shortest sentence in English is: I am. In the story of this sentence, “I” is the character. If “I” is the character, “am” is the activity that “I” is doing.

If “am” is the action, then “am” is the plot.

Verbs describe plot. Without plot, ye have no story. Understand how you verb.