Active Verbs Should Be Used

A reflection from Ted:

Several years ago, a friend asked me to edit her doctoral thesis. Last Saturday, we got talking about her project and she thanked me for all that work. I particularly pushed her to eliminate the use of passive verbs like is, be, seem. I encouraged her to replace them with more active verbs. She said it was one of the most important learnings in the whole degree. Apparently, my suggestions helped her become a better writer.

I thought about all of this as I responded to student assignments last week. Even in my comments I challenged myself to compose with active verbs. I also tend to obsess about not repeating words and ensuring pronouns do not float unattached in a potentially confusing fashion. The craft of writing demands constant cultivating and disciplining.

To live and breathe,or to die?
To live and breathe,or to die?

The whole matter also made me laugh. If we banned passive verbs, we would lose some of the English languages greatest sentences. Imagine telling Bill the Bard that he had to re-write Hamlet’s “to be or not to be.” To live and breathe or to die? This re-do does not strike the ear as pithy or poignant. Try informing Chuck Dickens that Tale of Two Cities should start “The era embraced positive elements and, also, reflected negative characteristics.” What re-working could possibly improve the stealth poetry, and philosophy, of Trudy Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose”?

As I thought about this further, I started to ponder the social construct that values action over passivity. In a culture consumed by busy-ness doing is deemed better than being. Maybe when we write in that a voice attempting to be energetic and dynamic we aid and abet a societal over-emphasis on producing and labouring. I am reminded of mindfulness guru Thich Naht Hahn who cleverly reverses the maxim, “Don’t just stand there, do something” by encouraging his readers to “Don’t just do something, stand there.” A sentiment with which I think mystics might agree, and people of prayer might do well to emulate. Standing there might also enhance our attempts to be a listening, reflecting, non-anxious, compassionate presence in the world. It may not cover the bases on prophetic raging or speaking the truth to power and it likely won’t improve our writing but it might deepen our souls.