I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:
“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”
“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”
Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.
Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.
On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.
At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).
And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).
The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools.
I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:
1) The progressive tenses
Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)
2) The “it cleft”
I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:
a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.
b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.
Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.
Try these two:
a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.
b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.
I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.
3) The Passive Voice
Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.
I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.
But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.
a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.
b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.
(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)
I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.
In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.
As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write
Joe was wounded in Vietnam
without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).
You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”
Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.
(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)