Don't Be; Just Do

By Bailey Faulkner

After completing three years of college, I can honestly say that I don’t remember every assignment I worked on in high school. The math has faded away, and my memories of chemistry have completely dissolved. With that said, I’ve recently realized that some high school lessons haven’t completely slipped my mind. Specifically, my junior and senior year English teacher taught me one thing that I still use in nearly every formal writing assignment that I’ve ever had in college—avoiding forms of the word be. Without thinking about it too much, I haven’t used a single form yet in this introduction! This strategy often seems strange and difficult to writers who have never attempted using this tactic before, but I promise learning about it will be worth it. (Darn, I just used one!)

What's Wrong with Being a Be User?

First, let’s cover all of the forms of beis, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been. Don’t think that you should never use forms of be. Sometimes, forms of be can redirect emphasis to make certain parts of sentences stronger or more effective. Take these two sentences for example:

It is essential that you buy the tickets soon.

You need to buy the tickets soon.

That first sentence clearly uses is, but it also places an emphasis on the word essential, making the early purchase of tickets seem much more important than the second sentence suggests. As we go over the downsides of using forms of be, keep the above example in mind; forms of be can definitely prove more effective in certain situations.

1) Permanence

When used most correctly, forms of be usually imply a sense of permanence. This meaning sometimes gets blurred when using a form of be in a situation that clearly does not convey permanence.

  • Permanent: “The University Writing Center is in the library’s basement.”
  • Nonpermanent: “I am very stressed about my final portfolio grade.”

2) Absolute Truth

Forms of be also make statements appear as absolute truths, even when this is not the case or is unintended. Take this sentence for example:

“College is the best time of your life!”

While this statement may be true in many cases, I doubt that anyone would ever say that every aspect of college contributes to making that time the best time of your life. Pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam or to remedy a severe case of procrastination doesn’t sound like the best time in life to me.

3) Generality

Many times, forms of be do not express information as explicitly as other verbs can. Here’s an example that hits home for every college student. Imagine one of your professors saying the following two statements at the end of class on a Wednesday:

  • Nonspecific: “Be prepared for our exam on Friday.”

  • Specific: “Study chapter five for our exam on Friday.”

I would feel a lot better if my professor used the second sentence instead of the first. While the two sentences have the same meaning, the second sentence proves much more explicit than the first.

4) Confusion

Using forms of be (especially when the word it is nearby) often sets you up to write a confusing sentence. While people use these types of sentences commonly in speech, be sentences may become unnecessarily confusing in formal writing. Check out this sentence.

“It is the feud between the Capulets and Montagues that ultimately dooms Romeo and Juliet.”

But what exactly does it refer to in this sentence? This sentence gives us a good example of how a form of be can be replaced or omitted to make a stronger sounding sentence. Look how simply this sentence can be strengthened.

“The feud between the Capulets and Montagues ultimately dooms Romeo and Juliet.”

This sentence avoids the “it” problem and appears stronger because the “feud” directly does the action to poor Romeo and Juliet.

Methods of Avoiding Forms of Be

Luckily, avoiding forms of be is not rocket science. (I just used the word is to emphasize that avoiding this is not rocket science. Remember when I said you can do that?!) Check out this list of the most useful techniques for avoiding forms of be. 

1) Let the subject directly act out the action.

This sounds more complicated than it really is. Just look at this example, and you’ll see what I mean:

“It is your SAT score and essay that determine whether the college will accept you.”

Try this instead:

“Your SAT score and essay determine whether the college will accept you.”

That example looked a lot like the Romeo and Juliet example. Let’s look at another strategy.

2) Reorganize the sentence.

Sometimes, simply reorganizing a sentence will help you eliminate or replace a form of be. This strategy also promotes using stronger verbs than forms of be. Here’s another appropriate example for college students:

“Preparing students for the various types of writing that appear in college settings is the goal of English 1000 and 2001.”

That doesn’t sound too bad, but this definitely sounds stronger.

“English 1000 and 2001 prepare students for the various types of writing that appear in college settings.”

3) Change certain words into verbs.

Changing a non-verb to a verb in sentences also helps out with avoiding forms of be. Here comes the coolest example you’ll ever see in any article about writing:

“Jimmy Page is the most rockin’ guitarist of all time.”

I can’t disagree with that, but I can give Jimmy Page the full amount of awesomeness that he truly deserves.

“Jimmy Page rocks harder than any other guitarist in history.”

That sounds a lot stronger. Keep on rockin’, Jimmy.

4) Combine sentences.

This one is pretty straightforward. Avoiding forms of be is sometimes harder with shorter sentences. If you have two consecutive shorter sentences containing forms of be, consider combining them in a way that avoids forms of be.

“The ASU student was freezing. It was cold outside.”

“The cold outside air froze the ASU student.”

That’s a super simple one, but you get the idea. I bet you probably know what it’s like to be that ASU student, too.

Avoiding forms of be may seem difficult at first, but that’s ok. One of the coolest things about using this tactic is that it comes more naturally the more you do it. When my high school English teacher told our class that he would deduct points for using more than one form of be per page, most of us freaked out. Some people even thought that our teacher simply wanted to make writing even harder for us, but by the time graduation rolled around, everyone who genuinely wanted to become a better writer found that their writing had improved more than they could have ever imagined. Even though high school has become a fairly distant memory, I can still truly appreciate the effectiveness of avoiding forms of be. Remember, you don’t have to always avoid forms of be. The choice IS yours.

Works Cited

Pennington, Mark. “How to Eliminate ‘To-Be’ Verbs in Writing.” Pennington Publishing Blog. Pennington Publishing. 12 June 2009. Web. 22 July 2015.

Weber, Ryan, and Nick Hurm. “Avoid Common Pitfalls.” Online Writing Lab. Purdue University. 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 22 July 2015