Watch Out for Those Progressive Verbs

Write RightIt’s always a good idea to let other people, especially editors, review and critique one’s writing. I’m no exception; one of my recent pieces received a good thrashing. Although the thrashing was done in the kindest of ways, it still smarted a little. Some of the points were things I know and try to follow. For instance, I know to use active verbs – they make for stronger writing – but, for some reason, progressive verbs plagued this particular piece. I felt ashamed and vowed to do better in the future.

Progressive verbs are tricky because they sound nice, and they perform a function: they indicate an action in progress. Unfortunately, too many progressive verb phrases in a row tend to slow the action. Progressive verbs, just like passive verbs, are allowed. They even are necessary at times. It’s simply that they should be used sparingly because they may not be the best way to word something.

Progressive verbs consist of a form of “be” and a present participle of the main verb. The verb “be” has several forms: be, being, been, am, is, are, was, and were. Such verbs are red flags, especially when they are accompanied by present participles. Present participles are easy to identify; they end in an -ing: loping, napping, murmuring, et cetera.

Progressive verbs can be replaced with either the present tense or the past tense of the main verb. It depends on whether the action is occurring now or in the past. It also is determined by the tense in which a post or article is being written. If the words in the preceding paragraph are combined into progressive verbs, the results are:

Jeremy is loping across the yard.

The cat was napping in the windowsill.

She was murmuring to her baby.

Nothing is quote-on-quote wrong with those sentences, but they aren’t very strong. It might be better to edit the progressive verbs to create these possibilities:

Jeremy lopes/loped across the yard.

The cat naps/napped in the windowsill.

She murmured/murmurs to her baby.

Again, choosing which verb or verb phrase to use is dependent upon the context. It doesn’t hurt, though, to read one’s work closely and to watch for progressive verbs. It could save the work from a thrashing.


  1. Don’t Strunk and White write about this? 🙂 

    • barrettrossie I’m sure Strunk and White do. I’m giving the lesson a Write Right spin. 🙂

    • I just remembered the most painful line in advertising: “McDonald’s… I’m lovin’ it!”It just kills my appetite.

      • barrettrossie Doesn’t McDonald’s kill the appetite with or without the slogan? Although, to be fair, I sometimes have a craving for a McDonald’s M&M McFlurry…I don’t know what the current slogan is. Is it still “Have you had your break today?”

  2. timbo1973 It’s funny you mention passive verbs. That’s actually where this post began. I was told I used too many passive verbs. I dug through my grammar handbook only to find the verbs weren’t passive but progressive. I may write a follow-up piece distinguishing between the two types.I sometimes do have my errors pointed out to me. Some people do it in fun, and some don’t. This editor did it in a gracious manner and with the intention of making the story/interview (I do some volunteer writing that involves interviewing people.) better. I hope you have a nice weekend, too. It must be mid-afternoon or so in Scotland, right?

  3. Recently, I read a post about not using certain word, phrases and verb forms. “Don’t use verbs ending in -ing. But I didn’t understand why until now. Thank you Erin!

    • garrystafford Glad to help! Usually, the problem with -ing verbs is that they slow the action or weaken the sentence. Sometimes a slowing is the desired effect – I know I use it in some of my poems when I’m building toward something – but it’s not typically a common one in business writing. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with the language you use.

      • Erin F. garrystafford Hmm. I’m still finding that I’m having trouble getting it. Lemme see. Now that sounds natural to me. But if I prefer to be less progressive, for example, I would change that to I still find that I don’t get it.Am I now getting it? Or rather, does it appear that now I get it?  😉

        • garrystafford Haha! Progressive verbs can be confusing because they do sound natural. They roll right off the tongue. I think you get the gist of progressive verbs. “Progressive” is ongoing or moving toward something, so if you are in the middle of not getting something you probably would say “I’m still not getting it.” If the lesson is past and you still don’t understand, you would say “I don’t get it.”You’ve reminded me that I still need to write a post about the difference between passive and progressive verbs and phrases.

  4. This was helpful and easy to read; I tend to use too many progressives and do it in a list format; “x”, “y”, and “z”. I need to go back and edit my own writing more, both my blogs down to personal and business emails. I love grammar when easy to read and for that, tip o’ the hat to you, Erin. Have a good 1st of Oct week! 

    • Jacob Yount I get into trouble with the list format, too. I think it has to do with parallel structures and how progressives sound when they’re in a list.I’m glad the post was easy to read. It’s good feedback. Thank you for that and for the wish for a good week. I hope your week is going well, too.