How to eliminate the verb ‘to be’

how to eliminate the verb ‘to be’

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes 

Several readers recently asked me how to eliminate the verb ‘to be’ in their writing. Here’s how… 

When Hamlet moaned, “to be or not to be, that is the question” he was actually reflecting the dark thoughts of many overworked editors. Writers frequently use the verb “to be” more often than they should. 

Part of the problem with “to be” is that it gives the reader no visual image. If I write the word cat or dog, for example, you’ll likely imagine a very specific cat or dog, with an image in your own mind’s eye. But if I say “is” what do you see? Likely, nothing (unless, like me, you visualize Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet, shown above.)

To address overuse of “to be,” I’ve heard stories of writing teachers who issued assignments in which they forbade students to use any form of the verb “to be” (or lose marks.) To me, this seems too harsh. Also, it can lead to misunderstandings. When “to be” stands alongside an –ing word, it’s called a “helping verb” and it displays progressive action. The sentence, I am running, for example, conveys a different meaning from the sentence, I run.

Still, it’s always worthwhile examining your writing to see if you can remove any instances of the verb “to be” and make your text more visually interesting to your readers. Here are seven tips for how to eliminate the verb ‘to be’:

  1. Eliminate (or at least, reduce) the passive: In the passive voice, the “actor” of the sentence is hidden. A classic example? Mistakes were made. (That one came from the lips of Ronald Reagan in response to the Iran Contra affair.)  In English, we make the passive by putting the verb “to be” into whatever tense we need and then adding the past participle: Mistakes were made. The flute was played. The data was entered. Sometimes, the passive makes sense (but that’s not the topic for today’s column.) If you want to eliminate the verb “to be,” however turn those passive sentences into active ones: The government made some mistakes. Daphne played the flute. Researchers entered the data. If you have difficulty identifying the passive, run your text through the Hemingway App. It helpfully marks passive sentences in green.  
  1. Change an adjective to a verb: Consider the sentence, He was angry. Plain and straightforward, to be sure, but you can make it richer and more informative by changing it to: The company’s hopelessly inept customer service angered him. Not only does it get rid of the boring “to be,” it also tells you a whole lot more.
  1. Combine sentences: If your text can afford a few longer sentences, then see if you can combine some to eliminate “to be.” For example: The ineffective stage manager is unhappy. He leaves the theatre, disappointed, even though the show received a standing ovation. Here’s how to combine them: The ineffective stage manager leaves for home, disappointed, despite having received a standing ovation.
  1. Target words ending in –tion and –ment: The French language has allowed us to turn many verbs into nouns. Consider: organization (organize), investigation (investigate), accomplishment (accomplish.) But using these words usually forces us to begin the sentence with thoroughly tedious phrases such as There is or It is. I like to use my search key (command + F) and look for -tion and -ment and then replace them with the original verb. Here’s an example: An investigation was made into the cause of the accident. I would rewrite that to: Police investigated the cause of the accident. (Note that the original sentence was also passive so you might have caught it that way, first.)
  1. Turn subordinate clauses into main clauses: Sometimes writers use way more words than they need. Consider the sentence, What she wanted was a flashy new pair of stilettos. Rewrite as: She wanted a flashy new pair of stilettos. Or, better, She lusted after a flashy new pair of stilettos. The phrase what she wanted is like Styrofoam packaging with an environmental cost.
  1. Treat your adjectives as metaphors: If you’ve provided some visual detail in your sentence — i.e.: The sky was a sparkling blue canvas overlooking the year end school picnic — turn the adjective into a metaphor with commas: The sky, a sparkling blue canvas, overlooked the year end school picnic. 
  1. Substitute another verb: I found a list of substitutes on the Speak And Write website. Helpfully, they also give replacements for “to do,” “to have,” “to say,” and “to use.” But to get you started, here are some of the ones they suggest for “to be:” abide, act, arise, compare, conjure, connote, continue, disclose, divulge, emulate, endure, exhibit, exist, follow, imply, inhabit, live, mark, mirror, occur, persist, propose, reflect, remain, represent, survive, symbolize.

If you overuse the verb “to be,” consider printing out this column and thumbtacking it to a bulletin board near your computer.

How do you deal with your use of the verb ‘to be’? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by day’s end, May 31/16,  will be put in a draw for a copy of POP: Stand Out In Any Crowd, by consultant Sam Horn. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted May 31st, 2016 in Power Writing

  • Tracy Isaacs

    Such a timely post for me because I’m doing a revision right now and have been struggling with this very thing. Thank you!

    • Glad to help. Using the “search” key for “is” and “was” should make the process faster….

      • Tracy Isaacs

        Do you think “eliminate” is the right goal or that a sort of 80/20 rule would do?

        • ARGH. I wrote the headline too mindlessly. I think the goal should be to reduce rather than eliminate.

  • dexie57

    Great article with a lot of meaty suggestions! Thanks!

  • S. Alberty

    These days, I’m trying to eliminate those kind of “introductory” or padding-type of clauses (see the stiletto-heel example above) by slowing down and judging my writing with a heavier and STERNER hand to remove them. My challenge, as a result: eliminating adverbs entirely while eliminating the “to be” verbs!

    • Just make sure you’re doing the slowing down and judging while you’re EDITING rather than while you’re writing!

  • cal

    Didn’t think I’d see anything new, but #6 is great I don’t think I’ve ever consciously used it! Thanks.

    cal

  • Carol

    This was very helpful for me as I use to be too often.

  • Melissa

    And after these great edits, don’t forget the spellcheck! (#6 canvas/canvass). 🙂

    • Thanks for mentioning that, Melissa. I’ve fixed it now. Note that this is precisely the kind of error that spelling checks FAIL to catch because both spellings are correct (with different meanings.) I, however, should not have missed it!

  • Charles Broming

    Excellent suggestions!

  • grammymartha

    I especially like #7, and look to this kind of method to make my writing a bit more interesting. Great ideas, though!

  • I would never have thought of #4 — searching for words ending in -tion or -ment. Also glad to reminded of the Hemingway app which I purchased after your recommendation and forget to use. Sigh…

    • Interestingly, #4 was the topic of one of my very early newsletters some 10 years ago!!

  • Angélica Hernández

    Excellent column!. A few days ago I realized I wrote the verb “to be” too many times in my english texts, I will correct

    • You are not alone! So many people do this. If you’re conscious of it and work to correct it you’ll be well ahead of many other people!

  • Windy Gust

    The tips in this column work brilliantly Daphne! (Of course, I was going to write I that I was so impressed by the tips in this column Daphne……but never again!) The search for “was” and “tion” and “ment” are ideal shortcuts. Many thanks. Wendy Guest

    • LOVE your user name, Wendy. “Windy Gust” is very clever!!!

      • Windy Gust

        Name as metaphor??