Helping verbs (is, are, was, were, will be, etc.) often are necessary to express a point in time (verb tense), but you can strengthen your sentence by stripping them when they are unnecessary.
Write with strong verbs, a valuable piece of wisdom for centuries, doesn’t refer only to using verbs that denote strong action and imagery, such as plunge, smash, or sprint. It also means reducing the number of helping verbs by using them only when you need to express a verb tense. It’s usually unnecessary to say when we were talking if you could write when we talked?
Common helping verbs are forms of have (have, has, and had) and forms of be (am, is, are, was, were). They accompany a root verb to express a time. When you say that she has worked here 10 years, you indicate she worked here in the past and continues to work here. There is a carry-over effect, and this is called the present perfect verb tense. But if she is still here, it is more efficient and stronger to just use the present tense she works here.
Here are other examples:
- I have spoken with management ……. I spoke
- have been receiving information …….. have received
- We were discussing that ………………..We discussed
- what will be appealing ………………….what will appeal (You need will to express future tense, but one helping verb is better than two.)
- I am assuming ………………………….. I assume
- Customers have been telling us…….. Customers tell us is preferable, because the original phrase indicates the customer response happened in the past and continues to happen. So of it is continuing, make it present tense (tell) and you save two words.
Whenever possible, use the verb forms you see in a dictionary. When you look up a verb, you see it as one word; no helping verbs accompany it. The word appears as make, not as will make, or should make. With one-word verbs, the action is more compact. It is contained in one word, rather than being spread over two or three words.
Helping verbs are an integral part of the language and frequently are unavoidable. In many cases, it is not wrong to use them but they are not necessary, so in those instances, strip them, and tighten the sentence.
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Ken O’Quinn conducts writing and managerial communication workshops for corporations. A former Associated Press writer, he is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business and is a contributing author of Focus on Them, about leadership.