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Simple Hacks: “To Be” Verbs

Fair warning, this blog post features the kind of deeply granular writing advice that a lot of people simply don’t want to take the time to apply.


One of the first lessons that I used to teach first-year students in college writing courses intentionally threw them out of their comfort zones: eliminate your “to be” verbs.

Now, I bet’ll have the same two reactions my students had: 1) that sounds too simple, and 2) really? You want me to stop using “is” and “are”? Or “was”? What about “were”? Can I please use “were”?

Of course you can still use “was,” but, like all the tools I talk about on this site, I just want you to think about using it.

Okay but why? Why should I bother hunting through my essay or my script or my fiction or whatever to remove something as banal as “is” or “am” or “was”?

Simply, because the verb “to be” appears far too often. We overuse it, in both our day-to-day conversations and in our writing. And, like a french horn with a squeaky C-sharp, we notice things when they repeat unintentionally.

The exercise starts like this. Take the following sentence and replace the “to be” verb, without adding or subtracting any additional information to the sentence. (Seriously, try it. Write the sentence down and then come up with replacement verbs.)

The dog is in the car.

Invariably, someone always provides “The dog sits in the car,” as the first alternative. (Did you?)

But look, “sits” adds information to this sentence. With “The dog is in the car,” we don’t know the dog’s condition. Maybe the dog sits, maybe it stands, maybe it pants, maybe it tears out the seat cushions, but we don’t know.

We’ve stumbled on another problem with “to be”: very often, other verbs provide the reader with more information. Often a very good thing. I would say that “The dog sits in the car” probably serves as a better sentence, precisely because of the increased information it provides.

But what about “is”? Can we come up with a good replacement without adding information about the dog’s condition? Sure we can.

The dog exists in the car.

Think about that for a second.

When we use “to be,” we make a statement about something’s existence.

So of course I would never suggest that you avoid “to be” altogether, but think about using it sparingly: you don’t drop mjolnir on a flea. And replacing the “to be” verbs in your prose will often lead to rewriting sentences and creating pleasing sentence variation. Give this example a try:

The book was found by the librarian, but it was covered in dirt.

You grammarians out there will note that this example also contains the passive voice. But rather than getting into the weeds with passive voice too much, let me also just point out that by removing your “to be” verbs, you’ll also inadvertently remove your passive voice, without ever having to focus on it. To fix the above example, we change the focus of the sentence from “The book” to “The librarian”:

The librarian found the book, covered in dirt.

Now maybe you don’t want this, maybe the emphasis of the sentence should remain the book. Maybe you really do want passive voice here. Great! But now you can hopefully keep an awareness about you.

“To be” verbs lull writers into false senses of security and into repetitive sentences. Giving your document a quick CTRL-F, hunting through for “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” and, yes, “be,” and trying to pare out as many as possible, will lead to surprising new sentence constructions, and simply give you more options.

I can almost guarantee that when you start looking for them, the amount they crop up, unintentionally, like annoying little prairie dogs, will astound you.

Save “to be” for when existence is what you really care about. (See what I did there?)

2 responses to “Simple Hacks: “To Be” Verbs”

  1. What a great post. I’ve always found my writing to be (hah) clunky, and the thing that helped was to remove most of the ‘to be’ verbs, just like the examples you went through. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    • Thanks for reading, Stuart! And I know exactly what you mean, it’s so easy to let the words just keep stacking up on one another until you’ve got this lumbering sentence. Hunting for “to be” verbs, if nothing else, is kind of a tricky way to fool yourself into looking really closely at your sentences and interrogating how to improve them.

      Cheers!

      Like

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