How to Eliminate “To-Be” Verbs in Writing
Every English teacher has a sure-fire revision tip that makes developing writers dig down deep and revise initial drafts. One of my favorites involves reducing the number of “to-be-verbs”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.
At this point, even before I begin to plead my case, I hear the grumbling of the contrarians. One of them mutters a snide, rhetorical question: Didn’t Shakespeare say “To be, or not to be: that is the question:”? He used three “to-be” verbs right there! If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. True, but Will used only six more “to-be” verbs in Hamlet’s next 34 lines. My goals are to convince teachers to help their students reduce, not eliminate the “to-be” verbs, and so write with greater precision and purpose. There. I just used a “to-be” verb. Feeling better?
What’s So Wrong with “To-Be” Verbs?
1. The “to-be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.
2. The “to-be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.
3. The “to-be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.
4. The “to-be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”
5. The “to-be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”
Adapted from Ken Ward’s E-Prime article at http://www.trans4mind.com/personal_development/GeneralSemantics/KensEPrime.htm
1. Substitute-Sometimes a good replacement just pops into your brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie sure is good,” substitute the “to-be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie sure tastes good.”
2. Rearrange-Start the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to-be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
3. Change another word in the sentence into a verb-For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” change the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.”
4. Combine sentences-Look at the sentences before and after the one with the “to-be” verb to see if one of them can combine with the “to-be” verb sentence and so eliminate the “to-be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive young person was feeling that way because of the news story about the death of the homeless man,” combine as “The news story about the death of the homeless man saddened the sensitive child.”
A Teaching Plan to Eliminate the “To-Be” Verb
1. Post a list of the “to-be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies/examples listed above for student reference.
2. Share the strategies one at a time, so as not to overwhelm students. Teach and practice only one strategy before moving on to another strategy.
3. Start with teacher think-alouds of the revision process, using the selected strategy on student writing samples.
4. Then, turn the revision chore on over to the whole class with student writing samples.
5. Next, collect student writing samples, type them up, and have students individually complete this “to-be” revisions assignment. Correct whole class and commend the variety of effective revisions.
6. Next, have students revise their own sentences from their own writing samples, using the selected strategy.
After teaching and practicing all four strategies, set the “rule” that from now on only one “to-be” verb is allowed in any paragraph (excluding direct quotes). Use peer editing to help identify the “to-be” verbs and peer tutors to help struggling students.
Teaching the strategies and practicing them in the context of student writing samples will help students recognize and avoid these “writing crutches” in their own writing. The end result? More precise and purposeful student writing with vivid, “show me” verbs.
Also see How to Teach Helping Verbs for similar strategies to improve student writing.
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