Section 3.5

Excessive Use of Linking Verbs

In business writing, you should strive for vigorous, energetic language. After all, business is about action! Dynamism! Leadership! One of the best ways to increase the vigor of your writing is to avoid the excessive use of linking verbs, which are verbs that describe a state of being. The most common linking verb is to be, whose basic forms are as follows:  am, is, are, was, were, be, been, and being.

Other examples of linking verbs include appear, feel, look, seem, sound, and smell. Depending on how they are used, most of these additional examples can sometimes also be action verbs, which, as the name indicates, describe action.

For instance, in the following sentence, appeared is a linking verb because it describes a state of being.

The manager appeared tired.

But in this next sentence, appeared is an action verb because it describes an occurrence; something happens in the sentence.

The manager appeared in the doorway.

Other examples of action verbs include repair, arrive, audit, testify, rotate, and brainstorm. These, as well as most other action verbs, can’t double as linking verbs.

When you write, you will naturally need to use both linking and action verbs; both verb types play a critical role in the English language. However, the overuse of linking verbs can sometimes leave a piece of writing flat. Where possible, don’t just tell what something is; tell what it does.

Consider the following sentence:

Mark is tall.

In this example, the linking verb is describes a state of being. In the example below, however, a similar concept is expressed with an action verb, towers.

Mark towers over his colleagues.

The two sentences illustrate how the use of an action verb can enliven a sentence. The point is not that the sentence Mark is tall is deficient; in fact, depending on the context, it could work perfectly well. However, the choice between is and a more active alternative becomes important when linking verbs appear in abundance in a piece of writing.

Compare these two versions of a paragraph from a business letter (key verbs appear in boldface):

Version 1
There are three factors influencing my decision to end partnership discussions with you. First, you are not knowledgeable about industry regulations. Second, you are often several days late in returning my phone calls. Third — and most important — you are not willing to sign an agreement limiting my liability in case the business is not successful.

Version 2
Three factors influenced my decision to end partnership discussions with you. First, you do not know the industry regulations. Second, you often take several days to return my phone calls. Third — and most important — you have refused to sign an agreement limiting my liability in case the business fails.

In the second version, action verbs replaced each instance of is or are from the first. The second version is crisper and more dynamic.

The next time you write something, circle every linking verb you can find in the document. If you see many of them, you may want to rewrite some of the sentences and substitute some action verbs. Replacing just a few linking verbs with their more active counterparts can transform a page of writing.

One caveat: in seeking out linking verbs, disregard sentences such as the following.

Jen is rewriting the letter.

Rob and Pat are editing the report.

In both cases, the main verbs are the action verbs — rewriting and editing, respectively — and the forms of to be simply act as helping verbs. Here they help by showing, in combination with the ing endings on the main verbs, that Jen is in the midst of rewriting, while Rob and Pat are in the midst of editing. (An industrious bunch!) These sentences do not contain linking verbs and are therefore not relevant for this discussion.