To Be Verbs: They’re cheap, they’re easy, they’re seductive. They pass themselves off as grandiose phrasing that in reality signify nothing, in reality a weakness in the sentence the sake of expediency crafted from nondescript details. Yes. These ARE TO BE verbs. Any questions?
Yes, I understand their appeal and that I tend to use them frequently, even when writing here or in my own fiction.
Good. Still here.
Most colloquial human speech, when using English as a base, would be impossible without some level of dependence on TO BE verbs (granted they’re rather invasive at this level). Its efficiency allows our language to strip out what we perceive as miscellaneous data. They leave us with short words that fulfill grand purpose, which will collapse upon inspection.
What are TO BE verbs? Well, the most common are:
And, let’s not forget, the ever popular combination:
- TO BE
I guess the next question that should be asked is how do TO BE verbs effect writing? Below is a passage that relies almost exclusively on TO BE verbs to make its point and devise any semblance of structure.
It didn’t matter that space was black and frigid. It didn’t matter that it was empty and almost completely void of life. It did matter that he was alone and he missed his friends.
As the boy stared out the view port into the infinity that was the Andromeda galaxy, he wondered where they were. He had hopes—worthless of course—that his friends were alive and well. More likely, however, they were still stranded, on the ice covered moon, frozen in the waters where he had left them.
He still carried the guilt of leaving them, but he had to leave that planet alone or he would be dead, along with them. It hadn’t even been his mission and he was the one to walk away. To leave them to their fate on a desolate moon of ice, what had been his right? His mind wandered, to three years ago, when he had escaped their fate.
Obviously, that passage contains quite a few TO BE verbs. TO BE verbs are interesting things. Easily abused, TO BE verbs give an undue sense of permanence. I can’t stress that enough.
Let’s take a look at the same passage, but revised to remove the TO BE verbiage from the structure.
Neither the obsidian darkness nor the near subzero temperature nature of space troubled the young man. That most of the universe could not harbor life, remaining void of any advanced civilizations held no sway on his conscience. Only the vast distance between him and his friends mattered. Everything else ultimately counted as immaterial.
From his vantage point on the observation port, he gazed upon the near infinite exposure that comprised the Andromeda galaxy. Somewhere, on a moon in a distant spiral arm, he knew his friends remained where he had abandoned them. He had hopes—worthless, of course—that someone had rescued them. For now, they remained stranded, where he had left them for dead, on a frozen, desolate moon.
Guilt burned his purpose. Remorse guided his every action. Yet, having not abandoned them, he would have shared their fate. Why should he have died for a mission he hadn’t even wanted? The whole affair had started as a favor to his friends and ended claiming their lives. Why should he feel guilt for surviving? Their fate should stay their own.
And yet… For seventeen years, he had lived by an arcane promise. An oath he meant to keep.
Thoughts: The passages where the TO BE verbs exist have effectively been removed, leaving on the stronger words. Obviously, a significant percentage of the sentences have undergone restructuring, but that should be expected. On occasion, the TO BE construct remains the most effective and, even proper, but not often.
Honestly, the revised passage didn’t take all that long. Maybe 20 minutes. That alone should indicate how easy removing TO BE verbs can be. A few ancillary benefits revealed by the removal of the TO BE verbs also removed a false parallelism inherent in the initial structure. I know that the effort isn’t over, but better results have revealed themselves from consciously going through and searching for weak verbs.
This passage belongs to the opening passage of a short story I wrote in college for a course: Science in Science Fiction. I am currently doing a complete revision of the concept. In reality, even this passage would most likely experience more severe restructuring, if it even remained intact.
For more on TO BE verbs and recognizing them, check out the links below. These should help with some of the basics. Really, in many ways, high schools and middle schools need to help out with learning these lessons earlier.
What do you think? Do the changes and elimination of TO BE verbs actually strengthen the passage?