Tag Archives: verb forms

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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How Much Grammar Do You Need, Part V: Rules I’ve Seen Erudite People Break–

—but that other erudite people will definitely notice!

One of Joe Williams’s categories included errors erudite people make but no one notices. Even the erudite people preaching against the error make it and don’t catch themselves.

Bill, the dog, critiques

He tells me when I’m wrong!

But another category: errors erudite people DO notice, and react negatively to—the implication being that these are errors erudite people scrupulously avoid.

Ahem.

I recently read the following in the New York Times:

The Arlington police had went to the Classic Buick GMC dealership Friday just after 1 a.m. when a caller reported that a man was standing on top of a car in the lot “stamping on the windshield trying to break it,” according to a 911 call.

I’m not posting this here as a statement on the events being described (you can learn about that elsewhere.) I’m providing it because it commits—in the New York Times of all places!—one of those fairly egregious errors an agent or editor or any other “well-educated” reader definitely will notice—and judge.Sad Editing!

(Tip for that NYT writer: if “have” or “had” is part of the verb phrase, go with the past participle. Otherwise choose the simple past.)

So Rule #1 that won’t be overlooked is use the correct verb form!

Rule # 2 on this list: Know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Trivial? Absolutely. Will not knowing the difference really matter? In some cases, you bet.

I suspect this one results from writing too quickly and proofing on the screen with a deadline looming. If by some chance keeping these straight plagues you, there’s unfortunately no easy way to remember, unless it’s to go with the one that makes the least sense. You’d think a possessive, like “The dog chased its/it’s ball,” would take an apostrophe, wouldn’t you, since possessives are formed with apostrophes? But “its,” the correct choice, is kin to “her” and “his.” Just fix in your mind how silly “He ate hi’s supper” would look, and you may be able to remember to pick the one without the apostrophe.

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes,

Rule #3 on this list is do not form plurals with apostrophes.

I saw this done in the crawl on Good Morning America! But it’s like announcing that the writer has been reading more roadside veggie stands than novels.

Rule #4? Do not put commas in these two places.

Comma rules can look complicated. Recently I eavesdropped on professional editors trying to decide whether to insert a comma based on whether they heard “a pause” or not. But people hear pauses in different places. There are “rules” for commas. I find that the basic list of uses for commas in handbooks, or on sites like this one, make sense.

I consider commas one of the most important tools for clear writing. They mark off sections of sentences and help me, as a reader, know what’s coming next (are we still in the appositive, or have we returned to the independent clause?). In this post, I just want to emphasize two places where I’ve seen commas sneak in. (And my agent from years back said specifically that she’d stop reading a query the minute she spotted one of these.)

Forbidden place A) Between a subject and its verb. “Gloria, went out to lunch.” I don’t hear a pause there. Do you? Or, more understandably: “One of the reasons I don’t like that play, is. . . .” Here, the length of the subject phrase may make a writer feel as if it’s time for a pause.

The only time a subject should be followed by a comma is when some kind of “interrupting” element comes between the subject and its verb: “Gloria, however, hated the restaurant we’d chosen.” Or “Gloria, who hates Chinese food, went with us to the Chinese buffet because it was cheap.”

Forbidden Place B) After a coordinating conjunction.

The most dangerous place for this interloping comma is after the conjunction between two complete sentences: “I hope you will consider representing my novel but, I know you have many submissions to read.” The comma goes before the “but,” never after, unless there’s an interrupter, and then you need two commas: “I hope you will consider representing my novel, but, like all agents, you have many submissions to read.”

None of these errors directly impacts communication. At worst, they create little hiccups in the flow of the text. Except that, as Williams points out, error is in the eye of the beholder. What’s a hiccup for me might well be a coughing fit for someone else. Agents and editors qualify, at least in general, as erudite readers. Even if the staff of the New York Times didn’t catch that “had went,” they probably will.

Do you have your own candidates for rules you really can’t get away with breaking? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cats as kibbitzers

They have their opinions, too!

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