Thursday, March 6, 2008

"To Be" Verbs -- To Use or Not To Use

Brandilyn Collins has been writing a series of posts about the rules of writing. In a recent post she discusses the rule Avoid Using “to be” Forms in Narrative. As I worded my comment (for which I probably owe her an apology for being so lengthy) I began to think about the power of “to be” verbs.

The Problem With the Forms of Be

You probably learned the Be Verbs in English. They are, am, is, are, was, were, been, being and be. We often say that they are weak verbs, but that is inaccurate, as I will show later. What we actually mean is that they appear repetitive, they hinder clarity and they lack action. In sort, when they are used carelessly, they produce writing that is boring, passive and static.


The sun was bright. The air was warm. The day was beautiful. Here we see three sentences and they all have the same verb. There is nothing wrong with any of these sentences, but they lack variety and while the scene is light and airy the repetition drags it down and makes it boring. There are situations where we want boring, uninteresting sentences, but here it doesn’t help. We might try, instead: The people in the park felt the warm air against their skin as they absorbed the sun’s warming rays on this beautiful day. We certainly don’t want a book full of sentences that use the same verb.


The passive voice makes use of the forms of be. When we use passive voice, we create sentences that are not at clear as their counterparts. The task was accomplished is not as clear as Bob accomplished the task. In passive voice, we don’t have as clear of an understanding of who did what.

Lack of Action

Consider the sentence, The car is started and compare it to Joe starts the car. Do you see the difference? In the first, the car is in a state of being. It is a static state. We see that the car is running, but nothing more. Our impression is that the car is sitting there in a started state and it will continue in that state. In the second, we see a transition. The car was just sitting there, but Joe did something to start the car.

Elegance in the Forms of Be

More than anything else, when we write, we want to create elegant writing. Our goal isn’t to create poetry, but we want our writing to flow with beauty and grace. Often, rewording sentences that make use of the forms of be helps us to accomplish that, but as we are doing that we may recall unforgettable sentences like to be or not to be, that is the question. Shakespeare doesn’t suffice himself with one be-verb, he has to use three in one sentence. Now, if you read the rest of the speech, you will see that that he doesn’t use many after that, though he uses a few.
What Shakespeare wrote has all of the problems that I mentioned above. He repeated the word be, creating repetition. He used the passive voice. Who is the character talking about? The sentence is static. To be implies a state of existence, nothing more. Why didn’t Shakespeare say, should I live or should I die, I ask? If all we had was the statement to be, or not to be: that is the question, then to live or to die, I ask might have been better, but that isn’t all we have and the result is a much more powerful statement.

Accumulated Power

People often think that the be-verbs are weaker verbs than other verbs. In truth, be-verbs have the ability to wield much more power than any other verb. Unlike other verbs, be-verbs have the ability to hold and to accumulate the power given to them by other words.
Suppose I spoke to you and said, “I am Timothy.” Whatever power rests in being Timothy rests in that word. Now, suppose George Bush spoke to you and said, “I am the President of the United States.” That is a much more powerful statement.
In the Bible, God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and declared, “I AM.” We already had an idea of what that meant by that time. God had already revealed his power through creation, through Noah, through Abraham and others. After God made his declaration, he continued to reveal himself through the Moses, the judges, the kings and the prophets. When people asked Jesus who he was and he said to them, “I AM,” the weight of God’s power rested on that two letter verb.
As we think about this and look again at the writing of Shakespeare, we may not know what it means “to be” or “not to be,” but Shakespeare clarifies it in the speech that follows. He explains their meaning in detail, so now when we go back and consider whether to be or not to be, we find that we are considering either staying in this world with all of its pain and sorrow or going to the “undiscovered country” where we are uncertain of what we face.

An Ordinary Verb

There are times when we just need an ordinary verb. Suppose we want to describe the color of a car. All we want to say is, the car is red. That be-verb pops up again. We don’t know what it means to be a red car. We might imagine what it is like, but we don’t really know and the car lacks the ability to tell us. No one really wants to know what it is like to be a red car anyway, so a be-verb is sufficient. We could roll the sentence into another sentence and say something like, He parked the red car, or the red car stood out like a sore thumb, but if all we want to do is state that the car is red and move on then we need nothing more than a very ordinary be-verb.
When we desire the passive voice, we have a similar situation. Usually, we desire passive voice when we don’t want to draw attention to something or to commit ourselves to something. Instead of saying, If you had paid him the money he wouldn’t have gotten angry, we might say, his anger is caused by not getting paid. We often use passive voice when we want to smooth some ruffled feathers rather than pointing fingers. The be-verb is so ordinary in these cases that we can leave off the explanation and let the hearer or reader decide if the shoe fits.
In the example of repetition, we saw how be-verbs bring a sentence down. Sometimes, we want this to happen. Consider: It was cloudy. It was rainy. The fire was out. The room was cold. Here the repetition helps to make the day seem even worse than what it would seem if we wrote, “Ben sat in the cold, fireless room watching the rain fall from the cloudy sky.” The first version gives us a much more drab feeling, which is what we want.

Understanding Importance

In the example above, having Ben sitting there watching the rain fall gives us a sense of motion. Even though he isn’t doing anything, there is motion and he want to keep moving forward to discover what else is happening. The be-verbs give us an opportunity to insert a momentary pause so the reader understands the importance of what is happening.
In vampire books, vampires generally come out at night. If they do any blood sucking, they do it at night. In the daytime, ordinary mortals have no reason to fear them, so we can walk into their homes at will, but what if, after spending some time exploring a vampire’s home, a character looks outside and it is night?
Notice how that at the very end of the paragraph above a single be-verb brings the action to a halt. Building up to that moment we have statements warning of the risk of wandering out at night. The implied character of the paragraph has gone to visit a vampire home, having nothing to fear, but he stays too long, he looks outside and realizes that he is in a situation he doesn’t want to be in. What if we changed the sentence and said that in the daytime, ordinary mortals have no reason to fear them, so we can walk into their homes at will, but what if after spending some time exploring a vampire’s home a character looks outside and sees the day has turned into night? It doesn’t pack the same wallop that the first version had. The transition from day to night implies a gradual change rather than a sudden realization.


Jessica Nelson said...

Cool. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

Dezire said
thank you so much for the information, found it very useful

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can't say enough for your eloquence and boldness in saying what you've said here. It's nice to meet another brave soul who dares to think twice when someone repeats a cliche. Bravo.

I'd love for you to drop by my blog on the craft of fiction. There are a few posts there, where you just might find a kindred thought.