Saturday, April 17, 2010

"To Be" or Not "To Be?"

Okay, so we have to talk about one more thing before we can look at the use of the Find Tool to revise for Passive Voice. I promise we'll go into that next post. But first we need to consider some basic grammar usage. Please bear with me, especially those of you who think you hate grammar.

"To Be" is the most important verb in the English language, or in any language, for that matter. It's important because "being" is the essence of everything, at least from the viewpoint of sentient beings, i.e. humans. Being is all that really counts for us, bottom line.

But enough of philosophy. We're writers. We don't care about philosophy, we care about words (;-). So let's talk about the verb, "to be."

We all know that verbs are words that indicate either "action" or "state-of-being," and we understand, as writers, that action verbs usually have more impact on readers than state-of-being ones. Verbs of being are essential, and, in some cases, they will carry more impact than an action verb would. Therefore, we want to become aware of their use, not so we can eliminate them, but so we can use them only in ways that will give greater impact to our writing. So our goal will be to use verbs that show action every time, unless statement of being is necessary for clarity or impact.

So let's talk about "state-of-being" for a bit.

"To be" is not the only "state of being" verb, but it's the basic one, and the most common. And because it's so common, it's also apt to be repetitive. And because it's repetitive, it can easily become that absolute worst kind of word, in the minds of authors and readers, a "boring" one. This paragraph is a great example. Some form of the verb "to be" has been used ten times in the previous four lines.


Compare with this paragraph:

She whipped out her pen and scribbled a mass of words in her blog that screamed, "Read me" to writers eager to learn how to grab, and hold, their reader's attention. They sat, spellbound, devouring the scintillating ideas that flowed from her clever mind, through her flying fingers, into the Ethernet, certain they'd find the key to fascinating writing, if not to publication, fame and fortune.

Same length of paragraph. No "to be" verbs. Much more gripping, right? (I said gripping, not accurate.) So, in order to avoid using this verb unnecessarily, we need to understand what it does in a sentence, and why it is sometimes necessary.

The verb "to be" is used to accomplish four things in sentences:
1. To describe a noun in the sentence, as in: The woman was beautiful. Or, I'm sorry.
2. To re-name a noun: The boy is my brother. Or, Mr. James is the principal.
3. To "help" another verb, in conjugation: She is going to be late for class, or He has been sitting there all day.
4. To create a passive situation, in which the subject of a sentence is acted upon, instead of doing the action: The results were reported in early May, but did not become well known until late December.

Again, all four uses of the verb are legitimate, but all four can also create dull writing if not used carefully. For this reason, it's good to become aware of when you use them, and why. If you will take just a bit of time to study your writing for the way you use them, you'll benefit for the rest of your writing career. You will streamline the revision process, because you'll be training your mind to revise unnecessary uses of state-of-being verbs out of your very early drafts before they even hit the paper.

Convinced? I hope so. Next post we'll get right into it, starting with use number 4 above: How to find passive constructions in your text, using the Find Tool.

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