When Hamlet moaned, "to be or not to be, that is the question," he wasn't
actually reflecting on the dark thoughts of many overworked editors. But
writers frequently use the verb "to be" more often than they should.
Part of the problem with "to be" is that it gives the reader no visual
image. If I write the word "cat" or "dog," for example, you'll likely
imagine a very specific cat or dog, with an image in your mind's eye. But
if I say "is," what do you see? Likely, nothing.
To address overuse of "to be," I've heard stories of writing teachers who
issued assignments in which they forbade students to use any form of the
verb "to be" or lose marks. To me, this seems too harsh. Also, it can lead
to misunderstandings. When "to be" stands alongside an -ing word, it's
called a "helping verb" and it displays progressive action. The sentence "I
am running," for example, conveys a different meaning from the sentence, I run.
Still, it's always worthwhile to examine your writing to see if you can
remove any instances of the verb "to be" and make your text more visually
interesting to your readers. Here are seven tips:
1. Eliminate (or at least, reduce) the passive.
In the passive voice, the "actor" of the sentence is hidden. A classic
example? "Mistakes were made." (That one came from the lips of
Ronald Reagan in response to the Iran Contra affair.) In English, we make the passive by putting the verb "to be" into
whatever tense we need and then adding the past participle:
Mistakes were made. The flute was played.
The data were entered.
the passive makes sense
(but that's not the topic for today's column.) If you want to eliminate the
verb "to be," however, turn those passive sentences into active ones: "The
government made some mistakes. Daphne played the flute. Researchers entered
the data." If you have difficulty identifying the passive, run your text
first. It helpfully marks passive sentences in green.
2. Change an adjective to a verb.
Consider the sentence, "He was angry." Plain and straightforward, to be
sure, but you can make it richer and more informative by changing it
to: "The organization's hopelessly inept customer service angered him."
Not only does it get rid of the boring "to be," it also tells you a
whole lot more.
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3. Combine sentences.
If your text can afford a few longer sentences, see if you can combine
some to eliminate "to be." For example: "The ineffective stage manager
is unhappy. He leaves the theatre, disappointed, even though the show
received a standing ovation." Here's how to combine them: "The
ineffective stage manager leaves for home, disappointed, despite having
received a standing ovation."
4. Target words ending in
-tion and -ment. The French language has allowed us to
turn many verbs into nouns. Consider: organization (organize),
investigation (investigate), accomplishment (accomplish.) But using
these words usually forces us to begin the sentence with thoroughly
tedious phrases such as "There is" or "It is." I like to use my search
key (command + F) and look for -tion and -ment and then replace them
with the original verb. Here's an example: "There was an investigation
into the cause of the accident." I would rewrite that to: "Police
investigated the cause of the accident." (Note that the original
sentence was also passive, so you might have caught it that way first.)
5. Turn subordinate clauses into main clauses.
Sometimes writers use way more words than they need. Consider the
sentence, "What she wanted was a flashy new pair of stilettos." Rewrite
it as: "She wanted a flashy new pair of stilettos." Or, better, "She
lusted after a flashy new pair of stilettos." The phrase "what she
wanted" is like Styrofoam packaging with an environmental cost.
6. Treat your adjectives as metaphors.
If you've provided some visual detail in your sentence—i.e.: "The sky
was a sparkling blue canvas overlooking the year-end school
picnic"—turn the adjective into a metaphor: "The sky, a sparkling blue
canvas, overlooked the year-end school picnic."
7. Substitute another verb.
I found a list of substitutes on the
Speak And Write website. To get started, here are some of the ones they suggest for "to be":
abide, act, arise, compare, conjure, connote, continue, disclose,
divulge, emulate, endure, exhibit, exist, follow, imply, inhabit, live,
mark, mirror, occur, persist, propose, reflect, remain, represent,
survive and symbolize.
If you overuse the verb "to be," consider printing out this column and
thumbtacking it to a bulletin board near your computer.
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