To Be

English Composition


Heavy reliance on the “to be” verbs(mostly “is” and “are,” but also “am,””was,” “were,” “be,” “being,””been,” and the infinitive form “to be” itself),makes your writing style deadly. Even though ads for upcomingmovies would have you believe that these verbs signify power (“SylvesterStallone IS Warren McWuss, Mall Security!”), theyactually drain your writing of all life, as if you seek only todefine all your terms and ideas (this “is” this; that”is” that; it “is” important “to be”aware that things “are” “to be” done as they”were” intended “to be” blah blah).

You will see heavy reliance on “to be”verbs in so-called official writing: government documents (“Youare expected to pay for foul-ups that were committed”), scientificwrite-ups (“Twenty monkeys were beaten on the head with leadpipes so that the effects of trauma could be tested”), andany other bureaucratic organization wishing to avoid responsibilityfor its own actions and demands. Such writing provides no mentionof anyone we can blame for the actions that seem to take placein nowhere-land–convenient if you ought to bear the blame, butpretty cheesy tactics. In your writing, you want verbs that showthe subject of the sentence doing something.

Transforming this kind of “passive voice”into “active voice” usually works out fairly easily. Just ask yourself, as you read the sentence containing one ormore of the offensive verbs, who is responsible here? Thus,

The meeting was called toorder by the Grand Exalted Poobah


The Grand Exalted Poobah calledthe meeting to order.

Here is an historical example of cheesy writingin an FBI memo:


FROM: Supervisor

Intelligence Division

Unit 2

TO: Regional Director Group 3

SUBJECT: The Supervision of the Activitiesof both John and Yoko Lennon.

. . . . It has come to the furtherattention of this office that John Ono Lennon, formerly of theBeatles, and Yoko Ono, wife of John Lennon, have intentions ofremaining in this country seeking permanent residence therein. This has been judged to be inadvisable and it was recommendedthat all applications are to be denied.

Your office is to maintain constantsurveillance. . . .

These last two sentences could read: “Richard Nixon has judged this undesirable and recommendsthat you deny all their applications. Keep tapping their phonecalls. . . .” Anyway, you don’t want your readers to thinkthat you are not saying something important, so get ridof the reliance on the weak verbs.

Some “to be” verbs pose more difficultproblems and require that you rework the sentence more extensively:

There are many foods thatare said to be bad for you

needs, perhaps, to read:

Many foods may cause healthproblems.

But if you keep realizing that any sentencecan convey the same meaning more effectively, then no writingalready down on the page can back you into a corner.

Limber up your style skills by practicingwith the following paragraph. First identify and circle all “tobe” verbs. Then convert these weak verbs to more activeones.

The Love Connection appears to be a competition. Thethree men who are in the opening segment of the show are competingfor Marcy, who is expected to pick one of them. But this is anillusion in format on the part of the creators of the show. Actually,Wayne was already chosen before the three videos were compiledfor our viewing. Why, then, is the show given the look of a competitionwhen the date is already over with? Perhaps it is because theproducers want to give the show the veneer of a good ol’ Americandemocracy, in which a person is voted for by an audience who isexpected to be an authoritative and responsible public voice. This audience participation is, of course, an arbitrary factorthrown into what should be, if not a personal matter, at leasta matter of personal choices: dating and relationships. Nevertheless,the democratic side of the show is a way to make The Love Connectionseem to be noble and culturally acceptable; but it really is nothingmore than a justification for vicarious thrills, eavesdropping,and mass busybodyism.

Here follow some suggestions for reworking the paragraph so asto eliminate reliance on “to be” constructions. Alas,one “be” remains; but remember: the verbs do not offend,we just want to make writing more active and dynamic, and lessstagnant.

The Love Connectionturns dating into a competition. The three men who appear inthe opening segment of the show seem to compete for Marcy, whomwe expect to pick one of them. But this presentation in formatdeludes us. Actually, Marcy has already chosen Wayne beforethe compilation of the three videos for our viewing. Why, then,have the producers of the show given it the look of a competitionwhen the date already took place? Perhaps the producers wantto give the show the veneer of a good ol’ American democracy inwhich an audience, supposedly serving as an authoritative andresponsible public voice, votes for whom they consider the bestcandidate. The show, then, inserts the arbitrary factor of audienceparticipation into what should be, if not a personal matter, atleast a matter of personal choices: dating and relationships. Nevertheless, the democratic side of the show makes The LoveConnection seem noble and culturally acceptable; but it reallydoes nothing more than justify vicarious thrills, eavesdropping,and mass busybodyism.

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