A Blog Post In Which I Overthink The Verb To Be
I sometimes step on certain grammatical and stylistic land mines in the world of academic writing of which I had remained blissfully unaware. As I discovered this week, one of these highly fraught issues revolves around one of the smallest, most basic verbs in the English language.
I had sent out the following tweet, which suggested, nay, stated, that to be was a boring verb best avoided.
Several people tweeted agreement with this statement, but at least one Internet writer took umbrage, re-tweeting my tweet and labeling it as “crap writing advice.” When my initial surprise and amusement had worn off, I began puzzling over why this insignificant statement might provoke strong reactions. I queried fellow academic writer friends.
Some writer friends shared my bewilderment, but one explained to me that the suggestion that she eliminate all forms of to be from her writing struck her as oppressive.
Sometimes things just are, she argued. Certain things don’t seem to have some characteristic or look a certain way, they just are. I considered this and concluded that she was (see?) right in specific instances. At times, trying to remove all forms of to be from writing leads to some ridiculous results. Things sometimes do need to be described for their characteristics and qualities. Here is an example of a fine sentence using to be:
The car was red and fast.
Marvelous! I award this sentence all the stars for being effective short, and avoiding the dreaded bloviation. (Post forthcoming.) Use this type of descriptive to be with all of my blessings. To recap, to be is (again!) a great way to describe things
The car seemed red and fast. The car looked red and fast.
These sentences are ridiculous because they suggest that certain fundamental characteristics might not really be a part of the car or that we’re somehow imagining them. They don’t work. In this case, to be would be the better choice.
Many academic writers over-use the verb to be and employ it far beyond its descriptive use.
To be is not a particularly effective verb for the type of analysis that makes up most academic writing. To be works for descriptions and inherent characteristics, but veers straight into boring territory when required to do the heavy lifting of analytical writing.
I offer three of my own reasons (which all overlap to a degree) why I believe that eliminating as many (notice that I did not say all?) instances of to be makes for stronger analytical writing. I’ve used some examples from my own writing and research.
1. Using weak verbs creates unnecessary wordiness.
To be, in and of itself, as an “auxiliary” verb, doesn’t do anything, but rather links other words together. It can, of course, also indicate a state of existing, but most writers use to be to link together a subject and adverb or adjective to describe a quality or condition.
Consider: It is hot outside today. To be, in this case, links a condition to a state of being. This is another of those lovely descriptive sentences. Great! More stars awarded.
Using to be for more analytical writing, however, creates wordy and unwieldy stuff like this:
There was a change in cultural patrimony laws, which meant that archaeologists were not allowed to take artifacts out of the country. These objects were instead sent to the national museum, where some were stored and others were displayed for public audiences. The way they were displayed was used to structure the relationship between the public and the state.
These sentences have lots of unnecessary filler words that amount to little more than blahblahblahblahblah and passive voice to boot. Rewritten without to be:
Changes in cultural patrimony laws prohibited archaeologists from removing artifacts from the country. Instead, they sent these items to the national museum for storage and display for public audiences. The arrangement of these displays structured the power relationship between the public and the state.
Rewritten, these sentences are (look! descriptive use!) less wordy and stronger.
Overuse of to be also sets up the writer to fall straight into the trap of passive voice. Nothing good comes from passive voice. I assure you. Nothing.
The archaeological site was looted by thieves.
This is classic passive voice. In this example, I’ve put the subject at the end of the sentence, which makes more work for the reader to figure out who did what to whom. This is because English is a subject-verb-object language. Rearrange this to get rid of the to be and the passive voice magically disappears and leaves a clearer, more concise, sentence.
Thieves looted the archaeological site.
2. To Be Tells Rather Than Shows
This is related to the issues of description, as mentioned above. If you want to describe something, go right ahead. Knock yourself out! I’ll even award you more stars. But here’s the thing: even descriptive writing can be made more interesting when you show, rather than tell. We don’t want to be told things; we want to figure it out for ourselves. Consider these examples:
The house was old with paint that peeled like ribbons.
This sentence relates to the point above; here, to be is linking old (condition) with the subject (the house). It describes and tells us about the house’s condition; however, it doesn’t show us much of interest.
The yellowing paint peeled off the house in ribbons.
In comparison to the sentence above, this sentence shows us something. It helps us figure out that the house is old. We don’t even need the descriptive word old because we understand that old paint yellows and peels. Now we have a picture and don’t need the writer to help any further. Done.
3. To Be Doesn’t Move the Writing Forward
The biggest problem of all with to be is that it shows nothing more than a state of inertia. It shows characteristics, but not action. Nothing is happening; things just are. Evaluating writing remains fraught with all kinds of subjective nuances, but I believe that most readers want to read writing with some action. If we wanted to read writing devoid of action, we’d read technical manuals. Interesting writing creates action; boring writing merely describes.
Diplomatic relationships were formed when fairgoers went to the 1937 World's Fair.
There’s nothing happening here and its unclear how, exactly, a bunch of people hanging out at a world’s fair formed diplomatic relationships. This is also passive voice, just without the classic, telltale “by," but the construction "were formed" is a dead giveaway. I also dislike the boring verbs went and formed because although they create action, its not much. Rewording this sentence and replacing the boring, to be, to go, and to form, gives it more clarity and punch:
Visitors forged diplomatic relationships when they visited the 1937 World's Fair.
Forged is a strong verb. Now people are at least doing things in this sentence, but it could be better with more detail about the people with whom the visitors formed diplomatic relationships.
Visitors forged diplomatic relationships when they visited the 1937 World's Fair and interacted with international performers.
Way better. Now we know a lot more about what's going on at this fair and how visitors forged certain types of diplomatic relationships.
So, in conclusion, am I advocating nevernevernever using the verb to be? Of course not. Far be it from me to oppress anyone with absolute, unbreakable rules about the verb to be. Sometimes a sentence just won’t work any other way or makes more sense with the verb to be. The important thing, however, is (!!!) to understand how writers can bring much greater clarity and precision to their writing with just a little extra effort.