To Use Be Or Not To Use Be — That Is the Question

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Today I came across another article advising writers to avoid the verb is. The author listed it among eight words to “seek and destroy” in your writing. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it‘s likely useless. When‘s the last time you and your friends just “was’d” for a while? Have you ever said, “Hey, guys, I can’t—I‘m busy am-ing”?

The “is” verbs are connecting terms that stand between your readers and the actual description. This is especially true when it comes to the “is” + “ing” verb pair. Any time you use “is,” you‘re telling the reader that the subject is in a state of being. Using an “ing” verb tells the audience the verb is in process. By using “is verbing,” you‘re telling your audience that the subject is in the state of being of being in the process of doing something.

Take this example:

    I was sprinting sprinted toward the doorway.

If the description is actually about a state of being—”they are  angry,” “are evil,” or “are dead”—then is it up. But don’t gunk up your verbs with unnecessary is, am, or was-ing.

At best, this advice is confusing. “Whatever form your “is” takes,” the author says, “it’s likely useless.” Really? What can he possibly mean? To be is by far the most common and arguably the most useful verb in our language. Even if he only intends to suggest that most uses of to be are unnecessary, I would argue otherwise. The irony, of course, is that out of the eleven sentences in this passage, the author employs forms of to be eleven times — and that’s not including the weird action verb usage of is he invented (“… is it up”). I marked them in bold.

Most ironic is this sentence: By using “is verbing,” you’re telling your audience that the subject is in the state of being of being in the process of doing something.

I read overstated advice like this often. I’ve encountered aspiring writers who have been led to believe that any use of be-verbs is an unpardonable sin. I have known well-meaning teachers who mark every appearance of to be as unnecessary passive voice (which is not the case). Let’s take a more reasonable look at the issue.

A trustworthy principle of good writing is to emphasize action through the use of strong verbs. There is no verb less active and vivid than to be, so it makes sense to minimize its use and look for opportunities to replace am, is, are, was and were with more dynamic options. I recommend reviewing every draft, looking for ways to swap being with doing.

But this is a general principle, not an inviolable law. Some ideas can only be clearly communicated through the use of be. And some sentences that could be made more active, due to their particular context, shouldn’t be. It’s nonsense to suggest that all or even most instances of be verbs be eliminated.

The latter part of the article above is particularly odd. The author is referring to the progressive tenses, all of which require a form of be as an auxiliary (helping) verb:

  • I am running/was running/will be running
  • You are running/were running/will be running
  • He is running/was running/will be running

This tense exists because it is required to express a particular meaning. You would say, “I didn’t call you this morning because I was running a marathon.” It does not mean the same to say, “…because I ran a marathon.” Progressive tenses indicate an ongoing, rather than a completed action, and that is sometimes necessary. Which tense a writer chooses should have nothing to do with whether or not is appears, but everything to do with which tense correctly communicates the intended meaning.

Be isn’t bad. It’s a vital part of our language. Good writers will avoid a drab, mundane over-dependence on it and look for opportunities to inject active verbs when possible, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong about using is when it is clearly called for.

*****

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  3. Rhonda
    Rhonda11-19-2013

    Thanks for the post! I teach my students the same thing. I try to teach them to write in active voice as much as possible, and I’ll point out the instances when their sentences are boringly passive. In the end, though, I tell them using is, etc., is not the unpardonable sin 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-19-2013

      Excellent. I was sure I’m not the only one. 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Angela Janmaat
    Angela Janmaat11-14-2013

    I love getting your email to say the next installment about the English language is ready for me to read. I am an ESL teacher and it can sometimes be lonely when so many people I work with either hate grammar or don’t understand what I am on about. I agree hard and fast rules are useless. Thanks for this.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-14-2013

      Angela, thank you much for this comment. You have made a blogger’s day. 🙂

  5. RG
    RG11-13-2013

    Thank you. I had a professor in college such as the kind you referred to in this article. He seemed to prefer nonsensical conglomerate phrases to ‘common sentence structure’ – his particular expression of this very issue. Balance. Always.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-14-2013

      My pleasure, RG. I am also a proponent of balance and reason when it comes to writing. Cheers.

  6. Julie L. Casey
    Julie L. Casey11-13-2013

    Great advice, as always, Brian. Thanks for being level-headed and realistic about writing. I tend to be a little suspicious of advice that is all or nothing. After all, language was invented to express yourself and every part of speech has a role to fulfill. I feel the same way about the use of adverbs. Yes, use them sparingly and judiciously [ 😉 ], but don’t eliminate them altogether.

  7. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz11-13-2013

    Good post — when working with WriteAtHome students, I encourage them to use active verbs whenever possible, but not to force it when a passive “is” or one of its variations would work better. Sometimes other parts of speech besides the verb drive the descriptive power in a sentence.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-13-2013

      And that’s one reason you are an excellent writing coach. Thanks, Paul

  8. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko11-12-2013

    Thanks, Bev. 🙂

  9. Bev
    Bev11-12-2013

    Thanks for your daily grammar lessons. How this generation needs them! They also need to learn to spell, especially the homonyms. Wish you were on 25 years+ ago when I was homeschooling my children.

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