To Be Or Not To Be

Intransigent verbs (yes, I made that up) frequently infest sentences and wreak more havoc than many writers realize. They come in disguise as am, is, was, were, been, had been, to be, be. My teachers and college professors told me time and again to avoid any passive verbs, but no one ever stressed the prohibition dramatically or thoroughly enough to make a lasting impression. In subsequent years I've come to understand their reasoning.

I call these verbs "intransigent" because they behave so inflexibly that one has trouble rooting them out. They keep popping up as though they believe they belong in every other sentence. They don't.

The reader's eye/brain system reacts to images and preferably images that move. Our eye/brain system, in its still animalistic way, reacts to anything that shows us an image, especially if the subject does something. The intransigent verbs don't do anything. Their subjects just sit there, passive. Get them doing something and they come alive on the page.

Your reader's brain dozes in the shade with passive verbs (forms of "to be"), but leaps into action when propelled by almost any other verb. "Killer be's" do have their role in passive places, but rarely.

"To be" doesn't conjure up any image in the brain. It says only that the subject exists—and we already knew that. Tell us something new. Better yet, "show" us something new. "To be or not to be, that is the question"—the bard gives us a moment's pause, and then we remember we have the answer—NOT to be.

Let's look at some real-life examples of improving the imagistic content of sentences by rooting out intransigent "killer be's," no matter how bullheadedly they resist.

The marines are dropped on the landing zone by helicopters.

(10 words)

Revised to:

The marines slide rapidly down ropes dangling from the helicopters hovering above the landing zone. (15 words)

True, I had to add five words to rid us of that "are," but look what we gained. As the writer, it forced me to picture those marines in my mind and, when I did, I saw those ropes dangling. I added "rapidly" for its accuracy—and then I saw how well it alliterated with "ropes," and then I saw the alliterative strength of "hovering helicopters." Serendipity strikes again.

I achieved all those bits of better writing simply by creating something more active than "are." The original version "expressed" for the reader what happened, but the revisions "impressed" a lasting image on the brain. We want our sentences vivid (vivid deriving from the Latin vivere—to live). Give life to sentences by substituting accurate, vivid verbs for the intransigent forms of to be:

He was enticed by her black hair.

Revised to:

Her black hair knocked him for a loop.

She was embraced by the clown.

Revised to:

The clown grabbed her and hugged her.

Note that I got rid of the "killer be's" by providing a subject that is active. In the first example, "her black hair" became the subject that acted upon "him." The revision in the second example also shifted focus by changing subjects: She was no longer passively embraced; the clown actively grabbed and hugged her. In a sentence that takes an intransigent verb, the subject is often disguised as the object. All you have to do is make the object the subject; the rest will come easily.

When that solution is not available, try eliminating or minimizing an infestation of "killer be's" by simply combining phrases and sentences.

His hair was blond and his forehead was glistening. His blue eyes were bright but unreadable. (16 words)

Revised to:

His hair was blond, his forehead glistening, his blue eyes bright but unreadable. (13 words)

I eliminated a "was" and a "were" and combined two sentences, but did we lose any imagery? I couldn't easily get rid of the first "was" because I wanted to retain the rhythm of the three phrases, but, hey, two out of three ain't bad.

We found the writing program to be very complete and well documented. (12 words)

Revised to:

We found the writing program very complete and well documented. (10 words)

As he walked up to the bar, he quickly scanned the handful of customers who were scattered around the tavern. Reggie was zeroing in on a blonde who was sitting at the bar, and positioned himself next to her. Reggie was a sucker for blondes, and he wanted this one. (50 words)

Revised to:

As Reggie walked up to the bar, he quickly scanned the handful of customers scattered around the tavern. He zeroed in on a blonde sitting at the bar, and positioned himself next to her. A sucker for blondes, he wanted this one. (42 words)

We can eliminate a weak-kneed "be" by making the subject do something more than merely exist.

There was a battle.

That tells us that a battle existed. Pretty weak. Let's sit back and think about it. What do battles do besides exist? Battles break out. Battles start up. Battles explode. Any one of these would go a long way toward developing a feeling for the battle—and would certainly be better than the use of "was."

Revised to:

Suddenly, there was the sound of heavy naval guns. Or:

The roar of heavy naval guns broke the stillness of the night. Or:

Heavy naval guns cracked the stillness of night. Or:

Heavy naval guns roared and flashed in the pink of dawn.

I've forced myself to think with more accuracy about the imagery I wanted to create in your brain.

"Suddenly, there was the sound of heavy naval guns" merely expressed what I had in mind, gave the basic facts. It fell short of impressing on your brain the sights and sounds of that battle's beginning moments. Don't merely express something; impress it on the neurons of your readers' brains.

I suspect that we infect our writing with intransigents because the is's, was's, and were's come so trippingly to the tongue. After all, these verbs expressing simple existence probably arrived early in our language-skills development, and we've had millennia of practice using them. Anything so long practiced becomes second nature, an autonomic response.

Since to be forms come so automatically, I recommend we let them take their place on the page in all their primordial abundance— provided we have the self-discipline to go back through this first draft and hunt for them. Circle those "killer be's" on a read-through and make the changes necessary to eliminate most of them. Aye, there's another rub. How many? I've decided to allow myself and my students one intransigent verb per one hundred words of text (1/100). A one thousand-word piece, for example, should have no more than ten. That's Cheney's Rule of Thumb; don't blame anyone but me.

And don't get carried away, aiming for zero tolerance of intransigence. To the extent you try to meet the suggested ratio, you'll be a better writer. Oops—I meant, you'll write better.

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