Simplify Your Verbs

A good copyeditor is always on the lookout for language that is imprecise. But what exactly is imprecise language, and how can subject matter experts or technical writers learn to find it on their own? More importantly, once it’s found, how do you replace it without using jargon or $5 words?

Well here’s one place to start. Check your verbs. Verbs should reflect an action that the subject is doing. Forms of the verb “to be” usually don’t accomplish that. These are hard to spot because they show up in lots of different forms.

Is are am were are all simple forms of the to be verb. If you find one in your sentence, look for another word that could be a verb and try rearranging your sentence, like so:

There are 37.6M people living in the state of California.

More than thirty-seven million people live in the state of California.

Here’s another suggestion. Look for verbs that are too complicated. Sometimes verbs need an auxiliary, like in the present progressive.

While we were walking to the store, we saw the prettiest robin.

Were walking are both parts of the verb. And they express a necessary relationship between the two actions. But if you have more than 2-3 words in your verb, you may want to rephrase your sentence, like so:

The liquids’ reaction can only have been caused by storage in sub-zero temperatures.

Only storage in sub-zero temperatures could cause such a reaction in the liquids.

Finally, check your verb for prepositions. If you’re using one, chances are you can replace the verb with its active form, or choose a more precise word. Here’s a short list of a such verbs.

aware of we know
base on depend
care for


carry on continue
carry out conduct
come from derive
concur with agree
confronted by / with we confront
depend on rely
detract from diminish
differ from disagree
engage in enjoy, join
faced with we face
familiar with we know
get off depart, go
get on embark, climb, ascend
get out leave
get up rise, awake, stand
gloss over cover
hand in deliver
hand out distribute
hear of discover
look into investigate
make out decipher
participate in enjoy, join
read into impute
stand for represent, permit, endure
subject to may
take after resembles
take away leave
take part in enjoy, join

And now you know a few of the ways that copyeditors work their magic on your manuscripts. Be sure to subscribe for more handy writing tips. And follow me on Twitter as well, @CorpWritingPro.


  1. Anna Biunno says

    Great timely post!

    I just began to read Roger A. Shapiro’s Write Right book on tips on how to improve your writing dramatically. Coincidentally, the first tip in the book (Tip 1) is titled Eliminate Prepositions. Loving it so far. Why wouldn’t I? He’s uses direct and powerful words. That’s what happens when you follow your own tips on writing, eh?

    • Thank you Anna for adding to my ever-growing reading list. I LOVE books on language and writing 🙂 Take care – Michelle

    • Lisa E. Van Alstyne says

      Thanks for the tip Anna. There are so many books out there, it’s hard to know which ones are worth it. I looked on Amazon and after the sneak peek decided to go for it. Can’t wait!

  2. Hum… What is the reason for removing prepositions? Conciseness? Is conciseness measured in words or in syllables? “Look into” has 3 syllables; “investigate” has four. Most words have a short saxon or a longer latin expression. Multi-syllabic words of latin origin are for the educated – the aristocratic French who would rather continue than go on. Saxon words are for the rest of us: the young, the ones that life prematurely sent to work without a full education, the ESL crowd fed on short memorable English words.
    All rules considered in isolation are dangerous: eliminate prepositions is one of these rules, in my opinion. If verbs with prepositions make text more readable, then I am for verbs with prepositions and against their multisyllabic latin emergency backups.

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