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Eliminate “To Be” Verbs: How to Revise Was and Were

Both developing student writers as well as professionals struggle with eliminating (or reducing) the overuse of the forms of the “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Any teacher knows that developing writers overdo the “to be” verbs in their writing. The narrative genre forgives the overuse more so than does the essay genre. After all, dialogue needs authenticity and speakers overuse the “to be” verbs even more than writers.

Students especially struggle when revising these “to be” verbs: was and were.

“Mr. Pennington, it is impossible to write this essay on what caused the Civil War without using was and were,” complained one frustrated eighth grader.

I turned to page 79 in my well-highlighted and dog-eared copy of Kenneth Stamp’s The Causes of the Civil War and read, ““Northern abolitionists probably exaggerated the physical cruelties that the Southern masters inflicted upon their slaves. Southern “fire-eaters” doubtless distorted the true character of Northern Yankees. Politicians in both sections kept the country in constant turmoil by and whipped up popular emotions for the selfish purpose of winning elections.”

Now I might disagree with Stamp’s sympathetic take on the exaggeration of slaveholder cruelty, but he sure can write. And, no, he did not have to use the was and were in the above excerpt. He did use a were in the next line 🙂

However, we do need to empathize with developing writers as they seek out vivid, “show me” verbs to replace the oft-used “to be” verbs. After all, six of the eight “to be” verbs appear in the top 43 highest frequency English words lists: is, are, was, were, be, been

To help students eliminate the “to be” verbs, I’ve developed five strategies (See the detailed approach here) and specific lessons to apply each strategy. Let’s use third strategy: the Convert strategy to eliminate was and were by converting them to strong _t verbs. The _t verbs pack a punch because they are irregular in the past tense and past participle forms. The lesson will include a helpful worksheet.

Lesson Plan: Common Core State Standards W.3, 4, 5  L.2, 3 and Depth of Knowledge Levels 1, 2, 3 (20−30 minutes)

Behavioral Objective: Students will demonstrate the ability to identify the eight “to be” verbs, explain the proper functions of these verbs, and convert the weak was and were verbs to the stronger _t verbs on the formative assessment.

1. Introduce the lesson by telling students that their task is to learn how to replace weak “to be” verbs with stronger verbs. Remind students To Be Verbsthat a “to be” verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being. You might want to reference this Parts of Speech article with my Parts of Speech Song to review the three basic functions of verbs (physical action, mental action, state of being). Tell students that writers generally avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing.

2. Write the eight “to be” verbs on the board: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.

3. Say,”‘to be’ verbs are not always bad; sometimes writers must use ‘to be’ verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. A ‘to be’ verb  performs one of these five functions: (Write this list on the board, adjusting or deleting the grammatical terms to the level and prior knowledge of your students.) Any questions?”

  • Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  • Happens−The meetings are over.
  • Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  • Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  • Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

4. Say, “Let’s learn the Convert strategy to replace weak ‘to be’ verbs, which don’t serve these functions. Look at this sentence on the board: (Write the following sentence.) Juan was bringing the salad to the potluck. (Point to the list of ‘to be’ verbs). Which ‘to be’ verb appears in this sentence? Whole class answer on three (pause): 1, 2, 3 ‘was.’ Circle the ‘was’ on the board.”

5. Write this sentence on the board: Juan brought the salad to the potluck.

6. Ask, “How did I substitute the was in the sentence? How does each linking verb affect the meaning of the sentence?” (For older students, you may wish to explain that the was and were _ing verb construction is known as the past progressive form and indicates a continuing action that was going on in the past, while the _t verbs indicate a completed action that happened at one point in time.

7. Say, “We need some practice using the Convert strategy to replace weak was and were verbs with stronger _t verbs (Print and pass out the Convert Was and Were _ing to _t Verb Worksheet to each student and read the directions out loud.) Complete items #s 1−10, but don’t complete the formative assessment at the bottom.”

Note: For older students, you may wish to tell them that the British tend to use more _t verbs than their American cousins. Brits will say “He leant against the wall.” Americans will say, “He leaned against the wall.” Also, although still proper usage, the blest, burnt, dreampt, leapt, learnt, slipt, smelt, spelt, and spilt are anachronistic.

8. After most of the students have finished the worksheet, display the answer sheet and direct students to self-correct. Then say, “Now complete the formative assessment at the bottom of your worksheet.” (Tell students to pass in the worksheet and review to see if your student have mastered this lesson objective.

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

FREE RESOURCES: Enter your email above to subscribe to the Pennington Publishing Newsletter and we will send you two ready-to-use resources each week. In our welcome newsletter we’ll send out the 11 x 17 “To Be” Verbs poster (PDF file with printing directions) to post in your classroom and help your students eliminate “to be” verbs. We want you to see examples of the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

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