To Be, or Not To Be: Getting Rid of those Pesky “to Be” Verbs

My students have just finished that all important cultural “trial by fire” and are one step closer to being full-fledged members of the Adult Society: The Senior Research Paper.

Or, as we call it nowadays: a documented essay.

I like this time of year–the senior research project–because it gives me some breathing space to get caught up on grading and other school paperwork and it also helps me to refocus my efforts on my own writing and its flaws.

Teaching others to write clearly, properly, and with a purpose is the best way to hone your own craft.

By the time I get high school seniors, the damage done by previous English teachers has pretty well permanently set in.

One of the more egregious outrages is the over use of the “to Be” verb and passive sentences.

Here’s the dreaded “to Be” verb list: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.

Whew!

Any writer who doesn’t know that writing in passive sentences is verboten is not doing her homework.

Because previous English teachers did not effectively teach to my students exactly what constitutes a passive sentence (S+to be past tense+action verb+prep+object), I have to try to do so in the short time I’ve got them.

No such luck.

So, instead of trying to teach what should have been taught in grades 7 through 11, I have one simple rule:

In your 1,500 documented essay you may not employ more than five (5) “to Be” verbs (direct quotes excluded).

After my students have completed their first draft, they hunt for “to Be” verbs like a crackhead looking for his next hit.

And they find dozens and dozens and they begin rewriting and editing furiously to rid themselves of those pesky “to Be” verbs.

“Why, Mr. Garmon? Oh, why? What’s wrong with a ‘to Be’?” they say, their doe eyes staring at me.

Nothing, I reply. Except you use too many and since you don’t know what a passive sentence is, getting rid of your “to Be” verbs will eliminate that problem.

Here’s an example of a passive sentence:

The ball was hit by the boy.

Of course, this is an easy one. The subject should be the one who is doing the “hitting” while the object should be the thing being “hit”. Easy enough to correct.

The boy hit the ball.

Here’s a tougher one:

I was taught not to write in passive sentences by wonderful and intelligent English teacher.

No one in the world will misunderstand the previous sentence or the passive sentence before that. However, both sentences focus on the wrong subject and separate the true subject from the action verb.

My wonderful and intelligent English teacher taught me not to write in passive sentences.

The action verb is right after the true subject, making this an active sentence.

Passive sentences are easy once you teach yourself to look for and correct them.

However, I get most upset with the following type of sentence:

There is the man who hit me.

I go a bit ballistic when I read a sentence like that, whether in a student paper or a Stephen King door stopper.

Since when is “there”, “here”, “it” the subject of a sentence? Okay, so “it” can be, but only if it has an antecedent somewhere in the vicinity!

Why not write the sentence thusly:

The man who hit me is standing by the bridge.

Again, the subject performing the action becomes the focal point of the sentence. The action verb is next to the subject, and the object is directly after the action verb (hence, the label “direct object”).

To show my students that experienced writers make this common mistake, I took two pages of one of my stories and did a “to Be” word search.

I had 41 “to Be” verbs on the first two pages of that first draft. I had several passive sentences and a dozen sentences beginning with “Here is”, “There are”, “It is”.

–It was a beautiful day.
–Here is the book I borrowed.
–There are several people in your office.

Nothing wrong with any of those sentences.

Except, what exactly is the subject and what action is really being addressed each of these sentences?

–The day dawned bright and clear.
–“Thank you for letting me borrow this,” I said as I handed the book to Jim.
–Several people are waiting in your office.

I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have time to try to find all those pesky “to Be” verbs.

Really? While you will probably sell with numerous “to Be” verbs in your text, if you take a little extra time to remove them and rewrite your sentences, you’ll find your writing becomes clearer and easier to write and to read.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne once opined: Easy reading is damned hard writing.

Good writing is craft writing.

MS-Word has a great and quick method to finding those “to Be” verbs.

The “Reading Highlight” feature is one of the most useful tools in the MS-Word arsenal, but the RH is an especially neat way to check your writing for passive voice use.

What Reading Highlight does is perform a search, but instead of taking you to the next instance of your search terms, it highlights all instances throughout the text.

To use Reading Highlight,

–select a highlight color from the “Home” tab, then hit CTRL-F to bring up a search window.
–Enter your search term or phrase, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Highlight All”.
–Click “Close” and watch your highlights appear.
–To remove the highlighting, re-open the search box, click the “Reading Highlight” drop-down, and select “Clear Highlighting”.
–Again, click “Close” and the highlighting will be gone.

How do you use this to find passive sentences and those “Here is”, “There are”, and “It is” beginning phrases?

Well, we know most passive statements use the verb “to be” in some form or another. So we want to search for “be” in all its variants: is, was, are, am, were, etc.

Open the search dialog (CTRL-F),
–type “be” as your search term, and click the “More” button.
–Put a check in the box next to “Find all word forms”, click the “Reading Highlight” button and select “Highlight All”, and click “Close”.
–Now, every permutation of “to be” will be highlighted.
–Not all of them are going to be passive — or too passive, anyway — but many will.
–Rewrite all those sentences to have more active verbs.

Using “to Be” verbs for anything other than linking verbs or helping verbs is a bad habit.

Any habit learned can be unlearned.

Once you unlearn to use “to Be” verbs in every sentence, your writing will improve, your prose will shine, and that agent, editor, and reader will appreciate your hard work in making their task (reading your story) easier!

PS: Don’t confuse clear, concise writing with character dialogue. Characters, in dialogue or in first person POV, can use all the “to Be” verbs and passive sentences they desire. But, you, as the third-person omniscient narrator ought to know better!

10 Comments

  1. I thought I had this habit under control, but just to test it, I ran a search for “was” on a chapter I had believed mostly complete.

    75 instances in around 6000 words.

    Ouch.

    Thank you.

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  2. My English teacher just recently started making us write our essays without to be verbs. It was a pain in the beginning! But now I’ve gotten used to it and actually writing without to be verbs makes the sentence structure stronger.

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    1. Comments ain’t the same as formal writing. Much of the grammar, mechanics, and structural errors I opine about are due to over use and abuse. i like a good ruler breaker — a rebel without a clause proper — the problem is is most writers haven’t learned the craft of words and structure well enuf to break them there rules. So, never write following absolute rules.

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      1. Met you yesterday in Altus. Thought I’d check you out on the Internet — see what you’d written, etc. All I’ve done is read your remarks on “to be” and the passive voice. That’s enough for me. Amen, amen. I just listened to some short stories by O. Henry. I don’t think he used the passive voice ever. Makes for wonderful writing/reading. I’m going to pass on my opinion of you — just based on your stance regarding “to be” and the passive voice — to someone who counts.

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