To be or not to be

If you’ve got kids in the house who absolutely hate their English teachers because they keep yelling at them to stop using “to be” verbs, this blog is for you (and them).

Because I’m on their side.

However, I’m also a Word Nerd, so I agree with the English teacher, too. Hear me out. For those who don’t know, here are the to be verbs: is, are, am, was, were, been and being. As you can see, these are common words. I just used one. Sometimes you can’t avoid them. They are inevitable.

Alas, the reason for this blog and the reason English teachers cover this topic ad nauseam is because, more often than not, you can avoid them. And should.

Why to avoid to be verbs

Grammarians have a handful of reasons to dissuade the usage of to be verbs, but for our purposes – limited to business writing and, specifically, proposal writing – let’s focus on just two:

1) They confuse the reader about the subject of a sentence.

This is already a common problem in business writing. Between long, convoluted sentence structures and problems like nominalization and passive voice, to be verbs become the cherry on top of a crap sundae.

2) They lack specificity.

Vagueness is like poison in proposal writing. We’ve talked about it before, about being purposeful (avoiding liar words, using specific stats over rounded numbers, stating benefits over features, etc.). When you use to be verbs in writing, you risk not saying anything at all.

Tips to avoid to be verbs

Here is where the English teachers and I diverge.

While they would circle every to be verb in your essay/paper/document and mark you down a grade for each instance, I want people to have a different takeaway.

Much like our advice to avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs, it’s less about these parts of speech being bad and more that they can indicate the writing isn’t good – or, at the very least, unedited.

To be verbs are simple. Weak. Good writing should appear simple, but never seem weak.

So, let’s focus on when and where writing can be improved by avoiding to be verbs. And it’s as easy as remembering the three C’s:

1) Change

During your review process, identify all the to be verbs and see which ones can be simply substituted for stronger verbs or better detail.

  • For example: Add specificity and change “We are the best.” to “Our dedication to your students makes us the best.” Or, instead of “Our food is delicious,” you can say, “Our food tastes delicious.”

2) Convert

If you can’t easily swap out a to be verb, see if you can rearrange your sentence to use a different subject or find a way to eliminate it by converting another part of speech.

  • For instance, consider this sentence: “The menus are written in multiple languages.” Switch the subject (the do-er) to remove the to be verb: “We write our menus in multiple languages.” Bonus: This eliminates passive voice issues a lot, too!
  • Another example: “Tommy was the creator of this dish.” Convert creator (noun) to create (verb) and instead say, “Chef Tommy created this dish.”

3) Combine

Look at the sentences surrounding the to be verb(s) and see if there’s opportunity to combine them.

  • Maybe it says, “The client was concerned. They were worried the change would affect their students.” That can be combined as, “The concerned client worried the change would affect their students.”

To be or not to be

Speaking of inevitable, anytime this subject comes up, people often recite Shakespeare’s famous line, “To be or not to be: that is the question.” That’s three to be verbs in one line. If this writing genius can do it, then why can’t you?

Fair, but counterpoint: The next 34 lines of Hamlet only use six other instances. So, clearly, Billy Shakes knew the true point and found a balance.

You (and your kids) can, too.

Don’t be sad. We’ll be back on the first Monday next month with a new blog post. If you can’t wait that long – whether because you have a topic you’d love us to cover, a question or you simply want to throw your two cents into the pot – we love talkin’ shop, so drop us a line.

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