Writing Dilemma - Using Verbs - To Be or Not To Be

The “to be” verbs are among the least active in the English language. Should we use them, or eliminate them all, replacing them with more vibrant active verbs?

How about a happy medium – replace those that need more action, keep those that fulfill their purpose. Knowing your goals for a sentence or a section of writing can help you decide “to be” or “not to be”.

Many writing coaches and teachers encourage their students to eliminate all “to be” verbs.  Often when they are stating this rule, they use a handful of the very verbs they want to eliminate! 

Rather than following stringent rules, let’s aim for strong writing.  Different situations call for different approaches. Our primary goal is to engage the reader!

“To be” or “Not to be” – state-of-being verbs
  • is
  • am
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been

Memorize the list of “to be” verbs so that you can pay attention to the way you use them in your writing. Your goal is not necessarily to eliminate all of them, but rather to ensure that you’ve used the best possible verb for the particular situation.

“Not to be” example #1
  • Joseph is so quiet and pre-occupied, we are worried about him.  He’s never been this way before.
  • Joseph’s new tendency toward quietness and preoccupation has been worrying us.
  • We’re worried about Joseph’s new quietness and preoccupation.
  • Joseph’s new quietness and preoccupation has us worried.

Our goals are to express three things – the way Joseph acts, our feelings about it, and the newness of these actions.  Which version best fulfills these three goals?  Is it clear and easy to read?  Will it help move the writing forward?

“Not to be” example #2
  • It’s been a long, hot summer. The trees are wilting, the grass is brown, and everyone is in a foul mood. When will it be autumn?
  • This endless summer has scorched the trees, burned the grass, and wilted our spirits.  How we long for autumn!

Did removing the “to be” words help the first sentence?  How do words like “scorch” and “burn” affect the reader?  Did the inclusive pronouns “our” and “we” change the story, or help get the reader involve?  How would you express this same thought?

“To be” examples
  • I am woman, hear me roar!  – written and sung by Helen Reddy
  • To be or not to be, that is the question. – Hamlet soliloquy by Shakespeare
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Sometimes great strength can be found in the “be” words!  What if these writers had avoided them?  The quotes that we all remember might have resulted in very different phrases:

  • Women have power too!
  • Every day I ask myself if I should live or die.
  • Let me tell you a story about contrasts and comparisons, differences between London and Paris, between rich and poor.
Would any of these “be-less” lines encourage you to read on? Or would you prefer the originals, with all their “to be” words?
Steps to improving your writing:
  • Find all the “to be” words you’ve used in a story or a section
  • Decide what you want to accomplish
  • Can you accomplish your goals best with action verbs or with being verbs, or a combination of the two?

Happy writing!

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