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.
Sometimes, 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 through the Hemingway App 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.
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.
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.