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What Is a Weak Verb?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A weak verb is typically an auxiliary verb that is used along with a main verb which results in a sentence that feels weak or passive. This type of verb is often used in sentences that have passive voice, though auxiliary verbs may be more effective in some instances and are commonly used on their own. The most commonly used weak verbs are various forms of “to be” and “to have.” A weak verb can also refer to a regular verb that can be changed to the past tense through a basic suffix such as “-ed.”

While the use of a weak verb is not inherently damaging to a piece of writing, overuse of such verbs can result in writing that feels “weak.” The most common issue with this type of verb is that it can create writing commonly referred to as “passive voice.” This means that the action in a sentence is happening to the subject of the sentence, rather than the subject of the sentence taking or doing the action itself. Passive voice created through the use of a weak verb does not always make a sentence improper or poorly written, but it can make a written work less impactful.

A clear example of passive voice created due to a weak verb is in a sentence like “The ball was kicked by the boy.” In this sentence, “The ball” is the subject of the sentence and the action of the sentence, “kicked,” is being done to it rather than by it. This creates passive voice within the sentence through the use of the weak auxiliary verb “was,” a form of “to be.” The same sentence can be written without a weak verb and becomes active rather than passive as “The boy kicked the ball,” in which the new subject “The boy” is doing the action.

In some contexts, however, the term “weak verb” can refer to how a verb is conjugated, rather than to the idea of passive and active voice. This meaning of the term refers to regular verbs that are considered “weak” because they require the use of a suffix, usually “-ed,” to form the past tense of the verb. Strong verbs, in this case, are irregular verbs that can form the past tense through some internal change rather than “help” from a suffix. An example of this type of weak verb is “walk,” in which the past tense “walked” requires a suffix, while “run” is a strong verb since the internal change to “ran” shifts it to past tense.

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Discussion Comments

By cloudel — On Jul 26, 2012

@Perdido – I think that was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in college, too. My psychology professor even pointed out something very interesting about the difference between people who use more weak verbs in their writing and in those who use strong verbs.

He said that over time, he has noticed that students who write with weak verbs are more timid and passive than those who use action words. The students incorporating more strong verbs were more outspoken in class and tended to go further in their careers.

I wanted to get ahead, so I started using strong verbs. However, this was forced, so it didn't affect my personality at all. Choices of verbs were more of a reflection of the personality that was already there, rather than something that I could manipulate to change myself.

By Perdido — On Jul 25, 2012

I think that we see a lot more of the passive voice used in fiction and in casually written articles online than in older literature and scientific articles. I do agree that weak verbs just don't deliver the same punch as active ones, even though they are sometimes necessary.

I learned in my first English literature class to avoid weak verbs whenever possible. My professor tore my first paper apart because of all the weak verbs I had used, and he demonstrated sentence by sentence how I could have worded things better by using an active voice.

So, for my next paper, I totally avoided weak verbs. He was right, because it did sound much better. I continued to write this way throughout college, and I got better grades because of it.

By giddion — On Jul 24, 2012

I've always had issues with my professors and editors disliking the use of weak verbs. In my opinion, they are sometimes unavoidable and necessary to get the meaning across to the reader.

For instance, the verb “was” is really unpopular with grammatical experts, but sometimes, you need it. If I wanted to write that I was devastated after my dog died, then I need that weak verb to portray this. To say that my dog's death devastated me would make the death an action and would not accurately portray my point.

I'm sure that many out there would argue with me, but I will continue to rely on certain weak verbs from time to time. I don't think it is possible to write a long piece of work without them. Sure, you can use active verbs more often than not, but there will always be times when you need the others.

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