“To Be,” or Not “To Be”?

By Mark Nichol

There’s no question: As useful as is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been, um, are, their very ubiquity can overwhelm prose. The problem? Forms of “to be” tend to make a sentence generic and vague. Their easy utility is a sign that they should not be eliminated, but it’s easy enough to reduce their frequency of appearance, thereby strengthening individual sentences to make for more potent prose. Here are some quick fixes:

1. “The man is standing in the middle of the street.”
Replace the weak “is (verb)-ing” phrase with an active form of the verb: “The man stands in the middle of the street.”

2. “The plane was flying just above the treetops.”
Swap in an active verb in place of the weak was and, if necessary, adjust the rest of the sentence accordingly: “The plane skimmed along just above the treetops.”

3. “This is a difficult problem that is going to require months of research.”
Streamline weak “is going to” phrases with the willful will: “This difficult problem will require months of research.”

4. “This is an old house that is in danger of collapse during an earthquake.”
Make a sentence that expresses a potentiality more concise with may or might: “This old house may collapse during an earthquake.”

5. “Smith’s report is a most valuable contribution to our understanding issue.”
Free a smothered verb by eliminating an “is a (noun)” phrase and introducing the noun’s verb form (and sometimes, as here, inserting an adverb): “Smith’s report contributes significantly to our understanding of the issue.”

Forms of “to be” are also complicit in sentences that start out weakly with the expletives it or there (also known as dummy, or pleonastic, pronouns), such as “It was announced today that tomorrow’s parade is canceled” and “There were several reasons for canceling the parade.” You can easily strengthen such sentences by introducing the actors into the subject: “Parade organizers announced the cancellation of tomorrow’s event,” or “They gave several reasons for canceling the parade.”

But sometimes the actors are unknown or irrelevant, so, again, seek not to exterminate such syntax; just make an effort to minimize it.

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2 Responses to ““To Be,” or Not “To Be”?”

  • Audrey

    great tips, as always, but please tell me that “understanding issue” is a typo and not a new piece of jargon to be avoided?!

  • Victor Travison

    The only time I (try to) use the “was [verb]ing form is when someone sees or comes in on action already taking place. “When I came home, Laura was putting groceries away.” This action is a continuation of something that started to happen before I came home. That’s the only exception I can think of for that one.

    Otherwise, you’re absolutely right. “To be” forms have to be excised as much as possible, unless the person doing an action cannot be identified.

    ~ VT

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