The Power of "Be"

by Valerie Balester, UWC Executive Director

This article has been re-published from our faculty blog, Stand and Deliver, from April 3, 2012.

If you tell students to avoid to be verbs in their writing, you are guilty. You may think be verbs decrease the power of writing, when, in fact, they can increase it. Writing instruction too frequently consists of a list of do’s and don’ts—one of the most noted being [whoops, I used be there], I repeat, one of the most noted being to substitute a strong verb for to be.  But this advice should never be applied wholesale. Like other writing “dos and don’ts,” when taken to extremes, it inevitably leads to infractions and infelicities. No writer can survive without being. Writing without to be is like living in a state of non-existence. We need to be.

For one example of the power of to be, look at the simple categorical proposition, so common in academic thought and writing, X is Y. Grammatically, the is form of be here is a linking verb, or a subject complement. [See how I just used is to define?] The pattern is categorical because it puts the Y term into the X category. Thus, we have sentences like the following:

Writing is hard.
Writers are editors.

Before you protest that the above sentences are too simple for academic writing, think of the contortions novice writers might go through to make them sound “better,” that is, more academic, and then remember that you also asked for clarity and concision. Below, I offer some revisions (a very writerly thing to do):

Writing requires hard work.
Writers can be described as editors

These, of course, show how changing the verb may have undesirable consequences (such as making a sentence less concise). Telling students to substitute a strong verb is tricky. That does not mean any other verb outside the be family. As always, we have to add to our dos and don’ts a caveat that judgment is required and that the specific context should be considered.  Now let’s try harder to substitute a strong verb:

Writing creates difficulties.
Writers play the role of editors.

Not bad if you want a theatrical twist. Not really better, however, because they lose the sense of the dictionary definition. The first is concise (back to three words), but the second is still six words to the original three. Their acceptability depends on the effect you want to produce. Re-thinking the sentences might work, as in:

Writers work hard.
Writers and editors both revise.

But that does change the focus and emphasis of the original. For “Writing is hard,” Journalist Red Smith found a better and more powerful solution, using a to be form, thus:

Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

Notice that a simple simile, a comparison using like or as, requires a be verb. A simile can have great power in writing, as essayist William Zinsser demonstrates:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

In Zinsser’s example, you see a fairly common rhetorical move: the writer begins with a short X is Y sentence, something dramatic, then follows with a longer comment on that.(Notice that his second sentence also used a be form.) I admit that wordy and weak writing can come from be forms, among the most notable being the phrases there is and it is. Sometimes, usually with these phrases, you’ll see student writers using exist in an effort to avoid be, and the result can be stilted and wordy, often out of place with the overall tone of the writing. So our hypothetical student may want to write something along these lines:

There is no great writing, only great rewriting. (as composed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis)

Unfortunately, to avoid the dreaded be, the student produces:

No great writing exists, only great rewriting.

As far as expletives forms (there is, it is), we should heed the advice of C. J. Cherryh, the science fiction writer, who tells us, using an expletive, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” The cure for wordiness and blandness in writing is not to banish be forms but to awaken a sense of craft in the writers. I like to say there are no absolutes in writing except one: There are no absolutes in writing. Essayist T. B. Macaulay said this as well, and he, like I, used a be form in his expression of the thought:

The first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this: that the words employed shall be such as convey to the reader the meaning of the writer.

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