Tag Archives: “to be” verbs

Show, Don’t Tell = Use Body Language

Some useful thoughts here about those little diction-level fits our writing can give us. I do suggest that we don’t go crazy about issues like this. It’s not worth torquing a sentence into an unreadable mess just to avoid “was.” But I am with Dan 100% on “look.”

Dan Alatorre

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This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD

CRUTCH WORDS = BAD

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

Tag, your manuscript is it!

First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”

It’s fun for…

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3 Ways The Verb “To Be” Is Your Friend

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

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.”

And this:

“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.

Police officer woman

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. Beware of writing contest scams!

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.

For example:

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.”

Love for Literary Fiction!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?)

 

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Cut Back on “To Be” with “Absolutes”

scissors1We’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:

Does

He is a good horseman

Improve if it turns into

“Good” characterizes his horsemanship

?

I doubt it.

scissors2But 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.

scissors3

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

and

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.

scissors4Still, 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.

scissors5This 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.

scissors3Above 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.

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Do you use this tool? Share your examples.

 

 

http://grammar.about.com/od/ab/g/absoluteterm.htm

 

http://grammar.about.com/od/c/g/cumulativesentencegloss.htm

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