The Verb To Be


We have all been told of the need to eliminate the verb "to be" from our writing. The verb to be includes: is, am, are, was, and were as its main variants. It is considered weak verb that tells us little about the  subject or object in the sentence. Good writing, we are told, uses strong verbs, such as explodes, recoils, subjugates, hunches, crawls,  and echoes. And yet I have already utilized "to be" twice in explaining that good writers do not use the verb to be.

While one should always strive to utilize stronger verbs, I wonder if some of the machinations associated with eliminating "to be" completely  might make one's writing seem strange and stilted. This is particularly true in the case of dialogue (there is that pesky "is" again -  twice). We speak using is, am and was all the time.  Seldom would someone say "The book perches on the shelf" as opposed to "The book is on the shelf."

I decided to undertake my usual consultation of the writing on my  book shelf and compare the frequency of their use of "to be" to that in my own manuscript. I selected four books at random and flipped them open. I counted the number of uses of to be on five pages, starting with the page I flipped it open to.

The results:

1) The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood) - Start page: 237, Number of uses of to be: 43

2) The Outlander (Gil Adamson) - Start page: 268, Number of uses of to be: 38

3) The Bone Cage (Angie Abdou) - Start page: 57, Number of uses of to be: 25

4) Mercy among the Children (David Adams Richards) - Start page: 186, Number of uses of to be: 36

I then reviewed my own manuscript in the same way starting on a  randomly chosen page (27) and discovered that I had used "to be" 24  times. 

Thus, while I do not disagree that strong verbs are desirable, my conclusion is that "to be" does not need to be purged entirely from  one's writing.  It is nonetheless a helpful exercise to review your writing for overuse of to be. One thing I did note is that despite their greater use of "to be" than me, the more compelling of the passages reviewed for this piece contained a larger number of unusual verbs. Thus perhaps using "to be" is allowed, when one has made a greater effort to incorporate interesting verbs in the surrounding sentences.

Ironically, the one page article outlining that one should never utilize "to be", contained 11 uses of "to be".

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