We’re told all the time to cut back on the verb “to be”: you know, “was” and all its cousins, like “is” and “are” and “were.” Sometimes we get so paranoid about these ubiquitous little linkers (linking nouns and pronouns with other nouns, linking nouns and pronouns with adjectives) that we twist ourselves into pretzels trying to eliminate them:
He is a good horseman
Improve if it turns into
“Good” characterizes his horsemanship
I doubt it.
But one use of “to be” that often can be easily eliminated is its use in the “progressive tenses”: the tenses that combine a form of “to be” with the “-ing” form of the main verb. (Btw, note how invisible “to be” can become: I used it twice above, once in a passive voice construction and once as a linking verb, as well as within this parenthesis).
For example, these use the progressive tense:
I am writing.
I was dreaming.
She was driving through her neighborhood on a beautiful spring day.
Sometimes you can easily substitute the simple past of your verb without consequence, eliminating the “to be” auxiliary:
She drove through her neighborhood on a beautiful spring day
may work just as well if you mainly need to place her on that sunny street.
But in other cases, the progressive verb tenses serve special purposes. Note the big difference between
He was taking a bath when I knocked on the door
He took a bath when I knocked on the door.
As this example illustrates, if you want to describe an ongoing action, especially one already taking place when another action commences, a progressive tense does essential work.
Still, there’s no doubt that “to be” can clutter your writing. “Is,” “was,” “were,” and their ilk don’t convey much action; they can bog down your prose. So if you can cut back on them without making the effort look like a strain, often you should. And sometimes eliminating them in a progressive tense construction is an easy call.
Look at this example:
He came to the door. His hair was dripping wet and he was wearing a towel around his waist.
I’ve written sentences like this. Nothing grammatically wrong, of course. But if you’re overbudget on your “to be” account, this kind of sentence offers an easy savings of two “to be” verbs.
He came to the door, his hair dripping wet, a towel around his waist.
This specific strategy involves the use of “absolutes,” which consist of a noun and whatever modifiers come attached to it. In this case, the nouns are “hair” and “towel”; in the first case, an “-ing” form, a participle, modifies “hair,” and a prepositional phrase modifies “towel.”
Ages ago (the 1960s, to be precise), a rhetoric and writing teacher named Frances Christiansen argued that “absolutes” were among the kinds of modifiers that enrich sentences by adding detail. Such sentence-building practices, he pointed out, show up regularly in the work of expert writers, particularly literary ones, and can be effectively taught to students as a way of avoiding choppy, boring sentences.
Above all, absolutes and similar modifiers allow you to move from a general description to tighter and tighter detail without having to figure out how to tack together independent sentences. Here’s an example from an excellent site with many other examples of how to use absolutes in your writing:
“Six boys came over the hill half an hour early that afternoon, running hard, their heads down, their forearms working, their breath whistling.”
(John Steinbeck, The Red Pony)
And as this example from the site illustrates, the absolute modifier can appear in the middle of a sentence (or at the beginning) as easily as at the end:
“The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick.”
(George Orwell, “A Hanging,” 1931)
Among the most enjoyable functions of absolutes is the rhythm they can create, one of those elements that imbue plain prose with that elusive thing called “voice.” Again from the site:
“Down the long concourse they came unsteadily, Enid favouring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time.”
(Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001)
Note how these slow, complicated absolutes, with their parallel structure, make us feel the long, “unsteady” progress of the characters as they approach.
Do you use this tool? Share your examples.