Purging To-Be Verbs
by Trista Cornelius
Ms. Griffin’s freshman English class: one of my favorite memories. More than two decades later, her class comes to mind frequently. Why? The challenge to draw a picture of Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird? Reading our writing aloud to the whole class after we pushed the desks out of routine rows and into a circle? Reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” and marveling that this adult teacher understood my adolescent longing when no other adult on the planet had any clue? Yes to all of that, but especially to Ms. Griffin’s challenge to write all essays and stories without using any to-be verbs – ever.
Ms. Griffin outlawed to-be verbs in our writing to spark bold, lively sentences. The challenge consumed all of my attention and, for the few moments of freshman English, the heavy self-consciousness that permeated my adolescence disappeared. Rather than wrenching my stomach into knots, I concentrated on verbs.
What are to-be verbs? I remember Ms. Griffin quite adamantly added seems to the verboten list, but what other verbs were disallowed? Why were to-be verbs so bad?
To-be verbs are static, passive words such as is, was, were, or had been that link to other verbs. To-be verbs don’t do dynamic things like skip, swoop or hustle; they merely exist while the other verbs sigh, sip or stretch. Like Ms. Griffin, Constance Hale of The New York Times “Opinionator” includes seems on the embargoed list and then adds appears and becomes. She calls them “wimp verbs.”
It’s not that to-be verbs are bad, but they can be vague, tepid and an easy habit to fall into. They blur the edges and dim the colors of your sentences.
Frida was the inspiration behind Diego’s most passionate love songs.
This is a grammatically correct and clear sentence. However, make one minor change – delete was and turn the noun inspiration into the verb – and you get:
Frida inspired Diego’s most passionate love songs.
In the first sentence, Frida simply fills the role of subject and makes the sentence logical. The second sentence, however, turns Frida into a character of action. For whatever reason, the sentence conjures long black hair and a vivid red skirt because she is a subject in the sentence who inspires, not a subject who was the inspiration for.
It seemed as if the gray weather had been the cause of Frida’s malaise, but her mood became worse when Diego forgot her birthday.
The gray weather contributed to Frida’s malaise, but Diego made it worse by forgetting her birthday.
In the first sentence, the gray weather stands out more than what really matters: Frida’s mood and Diego’s missing her birthday. In the second sentence, her malaise and his forgetfulness matter at least as much as the weather.
In a final example, short sentences sometimes build suspense; however, linking them together eliminates the need for to-be verbs.
Frida’s face was pale. There was a delicate pitcher nearby. She thought about throwing it against the wall.
Frida’s face paled as she eyed a delicate pitcher nearby and thought about throwing it.
In the second sentence, the pitcher becomes a character in the scene, at risk of being crushed. Luckily, however, Frida’s reflection in the window distracted her long enough for her to notice Diego walking up the driveway with an enormous bouquet of flowers hiding all but his feet and hands. Frida flushed pink and smiled slightly at the unshattered pitcher. (I had to give you a happy ending.)
Try writing without to-be verbs. You may end up with some convoluted sentences as you do complex gymnastics to avoid “am” or “was.” However, the effort yields a sharper eye for more unique verbs and stronger sentences.
To do this, write a one-page story, avoiding to-be verbs from the very first sentence. Or, find an old piece of writing, something you abandoned because it kept falling flat or just didn’t pull together. Choose one page, find all the to-be verbs, and rewrite each sentence. This could revive the abandoned piece and help you refresh your perspective.
Let us know how it goes!
This is the sixth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!