“TO BE” — NOT!
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 upcoming movies would have you believe that these verbs signify power (“Sylvester Stallone IS Warren McWuss, Mall Security!”), they actually drain your writing of all life, as if you seek only to define 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 (“You are expected to pay for foul-ups that were committed”), scientific write-ups (“Twenty monkeys were beaten on the head with lead pipes so that the effects of trauma could be tested”), and any other bureaucratic organization wishing to avoid responsibility for its own actions and demands. Such writing provides no mention of anyone we can blame for the actions that seem to take place in nowhere-land–convenient if you ought to bear the blame, but pretty cheesy tactics. In your writing, you want verbs that show the 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 or more of the offensive verbs, who is responsible here? Thus,
The meeting was called to order by the Grand Exalted Poobah
The Grand Exalted Poobah called the meeting to order.
Here is an historical example of cheesy writing in an FBI memo:
M E M O R A N D U M
TO: Regional Director Group 3
SUBJECT: The Supervision of the Activities of both John and Yoko Lennon.
. . . . It has come to the further attention of this office that John Ono Lennon, formerly of the Beatles, and Yoko Ono, wife of John Lennon, have intentions of remaining in this country seeking permanent residence therein. This has been judged to be inadvisable and it was recommended that all applications are to be denied.
Your office is to maintain constant surveillance. . . .
These last two sentences could read: “Richard Nixon has judged this undesirable and recommends that you deny all their applications. Keep tapping their phone calls. . . .” Anyway, you don’t want your readers to think that you are not saying something important, so get rid of the reliance on the weak verbs.
Some “to be” verbs pose more difficult problems and require that you rework the sentence more extensively:
There are many foods that are said to be bad for you
needs, perhaps, to read:
Many foods may cause health problems.
But if you keep realizing that any sentence can convey the same meaning more effectively, then no writing already down on the page can back you into a corner.
Limber up your style skills by practicing with the following paragraph. First identify and circle all “to be” verbs. Then convert these weak verbs to more active ones.
The Love Connection appears to be a competition. The three men who are in the opening segment of the show are competing for Marcy, who is expected to pick one of them. But this is an illusion in format on the part of the creators of the show. Actually,Wayne was already chosen before the three videos were compiled for our viewing. Why, then, is the show given the look of a competition when the date is already over with? Perhaps it is because the producers want to give the show the veneer of a good ol’ American democracy, in which a person is voted for by an audience who is expected to be an authoritative and responsible public voice. This audience participation is, of course, an arbitrary factor thrown into what should be, if not a personal matter, at leas ta matter of personal choices: dating and relationships. Nevertheless,the democratic side of the show is a way to make The Love Connection seem to be noble and culturally acceptable; but it really is nothing more than a justification for vicarious thrills, eavesdropping,and mass busybodyism.
Here follow some suggestions for reworking the paragraph so as to 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 less stagnant.
The Love Connection turns dating into a competition. The three men who appear in the opening segment of the show seem to compete for Marcy, whom we expect to pick one of them. But this presentation in format deludes us. Actually, Marcy has already chosen Wayne before the compilation of the three videos for our viewing. Why, then, have the producers of the show given it the look of a competition when the date already took place? Perhaps the producers want to give the show the veneer of a good ol’ American democracy in which an audience, supposedly serving as an authoritative and responsible public voice, votes for whom they consider the best candidate. The show, then, inserts the arbitrary factor of audience participation into what should be, if not a personal matter, at least a matter of personal choices: dating and relationships. Nevertheless, the democratic side of the show makes The Love Connection seem noble and culturally acceptable; but it really does nothing more than justify vicarious thrills, eavesdropping,and mass busybodyism.