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How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs in Writing

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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?

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

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

When Can We Use “To Be” Verbs?

It’s not that “to be” verbs are always bad; sometimes writers must use “to be” verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. In fact, these verb forms can be difficult to replace. When the verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being, it performs one of these five functions:

  1. Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  2. Happens−The meetings are over.
  3. Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  4. Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  5. Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

Generally, writers should avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing. However, when writers can replace a “to be” verb with a vivid, “show me” verb in any writing genre, it certainly makes sense to do so. With a good “show me” verb, the reader (or listener) can picture the physical or mental action of the verb. The verb engages the interest of the reader and specifically communicates the nature of the action. But, not all non-“to be” verbs are vivid, “show me” verbs. For example, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do not use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy sits down on the bench and thinks what to do next. In contrast, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy slouches down on the bench and studies what to do next.

So, how can we get our students to reduce or eliminate “to be” verbs in their essays to create precision of meaning, specificity, clarity, and just good old sentence variety? How do we get our students to use these vivid “show me” verbs instead? Try these five strategies:

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. IdentifyStudents need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time” 
  2. SubstituteSometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. ConvertStudents can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.” 
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. CombineLook at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”

FREE RESOURCES: Enter your email above to subscribe to the Pennington Publishing Newsletter and we will send you two ready-to-use resources each week. In our welcome newsletter we’ll send out the 11 x 17 “To be or not to be…” poster (PDF file with printing directions) to post in your classroom and help your students eliminate “to be” verbs. Just a nice sample of the quality resources found in our teacher-created and classroom-tested assessment-based ELA and reading resources.

A Teaching Plan to Eliminate the “To Be” Verb

  1. Post a list of the “to be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies listed above for student reference. Why not create a Dead Verbs Cemetery bulletin board? (What a great idea for Halloween!) and/or print and reference the free “To be or not to be…” poster.
  2. Share the five strategies one at a time, so as not to overwhelm students. Teach, practice, and master only one strategy  before moving on to another strategy.
  3. Use teacher think-alouds to model the “to be” verb revision process.
  4. Then, turn the revision chore on over to the whole class with one student writing sample. Correct whole class and commend the variety of effective revisions. Compare sentence revisions and discuss which strategies worked and did not work to eliminate the “to be” verbs.
  5. Next, collect student writing samples from the whole class and have students individually revise their peers’ “to be” verbs. Peer editing focused on one target issue makes sense.
  6. Next, have students revise their own sentences from their own writing samples, using the five strategies.

After teaching and practicing all five 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.

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Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

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  1. Tracy W.
    July 20th, 2010 at 15:50 | #1

    This is wonderful. I plan on using it with my English 101 students at the community college where I teach.

  2. Lycia Augustine
    October 3rd, 2010 at 21:20 | #2

    This information is extremely helpful. Being an AP student we are working on forming complex sentences and cutting down on the ” to be” verbs. This can really help any student to understand the basics on eliminating the verbs. I will definately share this with friends in school. Thanks a lot.

  3. February 7th, 2011 at 15:36 | #3

    The only difficulty I found with this when seeking and destroying ‘to be’ verbs in my YA novel, Lethal Inheritance was that some of the simple changes like, ‘she was over it’ into ‘she felt over it’ didn’t work for the ‘voice’ of the character, so I didn’t change them. Other than that, kind of thing destroying the ‘wases’ really helped the writing.

  4. Liz
    March 15th, 2011 at 23:12 | #4

    I’m a college student taking a fiction writing class and my teacher repeats over and over, “Don’t use to be verbs!” I had NO idea what those were, and this article helped immensely. Thanks so much!

  5. March 17th, 2011 at 04:59 | #5

    You’re welcome. Pass on the link to your professor.

  6. Aimee
    April 27th, 2011 at 22:21 | #6

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’m in Pre-AP English 2 and my teacher is making us revise an essay by cutting out 90% of our to-be verbs. I was so confused, but this made it easier.

  7. Madison Fontayne
    April 28th, 2011 at 13:19 | #7

    I am a free-lance writer who just started writing for publications again after a few years of rest. Those “to be” verbs popped up everywhere in an article I just completed and I felt adrift, with no solution. This information is wonderful! Easy to understand and apply. I am certain my writing will improve – thanks!

  8. April 28th, 2011 at 18:08 | #8

    Glad it helps! Pass along the site to your teacher. He or she will thank you…

  9. anon
    August 22nd, 2011 at 20:10 | #9

    How to revise something like “if a story meets these three criteria, then it is literature” without using passive voice?

  10. August 23rd, 2011 at 16:32 | #10

    Three criteria classify a story as literature. Come on, give us a hard one:)

  11. anon
    August 23rd, 2011 at 18:52 | #11

    @Mark Pennington
    that has a completely different meaning.

  12. August 23rd, 2011 at 19:13 | #12

    Maybe a shade different. How about “For (As) literature, a story must meet three criteria.” The point is not to always eliminate passive voice, it IS one technique to reduce dependence upon over-used “to-be” verbs. Of course, in some contexts, passive voice is preferred to demonstrate objectivity.

  13. ty
    September 28th, 2011 at 09:20 | #13

    Thank you

  14. Chase
    November 1st, 2011 at 01:28 | #14

    “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.”

    What’s the title of the article?

    Just poking fun at the irony. Thanks for the piece.

  15. Janette Kay
    November 16th, 2011 at 18:48 | #15

    So, how would you define “to be” so a 3rd or 4th grader would understand?

  16. Sophie
    November 17th, 2011 at 13:49 | #16

    Thank you so much for this! I’m an english student and my teacher doesn’t allow to be verbs in any of our writing. Though in some situations cutting out a to be verb without making the sentence structure really awkward is very difficult! Ex. The main idea of the poem is the connection between ect. ect.”
    I find it very hard to eradicate to be verbs form sentences like that.

  17. November 17th, 2011 at 19:34 | #17

    Great question. I would not define them; just provide examples. Save the “state of being” words for older students.

  18. Courtney
    December 5th, 2011 at 17:21 | #18

    I am in Honors American Lit. right now and my teacher has told us we can not include to be verbs within our writing. But i havwe found it difficult to remove them in sentences like ” It is Hester’s fault”.

  19. December 6th, 2011 at 17:25 | #19

    Suggest you drop the “It is” and “There are” sentence starters.

  20. Kasey
    January 5th, 2012 at 16:43 | #20

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am in honors english and my teacher hates “to be” verbs. My class gets points taken off of our essays if “to be” verbs are included in them. It is really frustrating to try and eliminate these verbs–especially if you do not know what all of them are! This article really helped and I will pass on the link to my teacher.

  21. T.J.
    June 26th, 2012 at 17:33 | #21

    Great article. One of my high school English teachers often grated against this style.

    Any suggestions to avoiding “would”, “should”, etc. in the future tense? I find writing about what a group/ person will do or plans to do trends toward repetitiveness for me.

  22. Huckleberry Muckleroy
    September 26th, 2012 at 08:55 | #22

    A caution: when attempting to avoid ‘to be’ declensions, avoid ‘verbing’ a noun. Rowling is an author. She wrote the Potter series. She did not ‘author’ them.

  23. Algernon
    November 8th, 2012 at 22:05 | #23

    First, your problems aren’t necessarily problems.

    1) The first problem you identify with “to-be” verbs is not a problem. It is quite legitimate to say “I am hungry” even if you’ll be full in an hour. At the time you say it, you are hungry. What if a child says, “I am five years old”? Would you prefer them to say, “I feel five years old”? Regardless of whether a state of being is permanent or temporary, it still exists at the time of feeling it.

    2) “Classical music is often sophisticated.” Problem solved. Also, “Classical music has a sophisticated structure.” is just as truth-claiming, even without the “to-be” verb.

    3) & 4) Are the same point. Lacking specificity is the same as being vague. “To-be” verbs, like all verbs, are as specific or vague as the rest of the sentence allows. “This school is the highest-scoring school on all measures of academic excellence and student satisfaction.”

    5) “It had been raining.” Who or what is the “It”? The problem is not the verb, it’s the indefinite pronoun.

    Second, your solutions aren’t necessarily solutions. (There’s that pesky “to-be” verb again!)

    1) This is okay. (“Is”!)

    2) You’ve removed the “to-be” verb by creating a more complex sentence. Most people wouldn’t write “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” anyway. This is a false problem. At worst, they would write, “The monster was creeping in the dark tunnel,” which includes “was”, but only as part of the past progressive tense. However, a better solution to your manufactured problem is, “The monster crept down the tunnel.”

    3) This is acceptable. (“Is”!)

    4) Again, you’ve created a false problem. The two sentences in your example have more problems than merely a bad use of “to-be” verbs.

    You had to go out of your way to create artificially bad problems which we would never encounter in most writing. “To-be” is not the problem you make it out to be.

    This looks simply like some rant about somebody’s person peeve. Yes, over-use of “to-be” verbs can be boring and indicative of problems. However, the solution is not to replace ALL “to-be” verbs without judgement!

  24. November 9th, 2012 at 17:19 | #24

    Algernon, you have some valid points; however, you fail to pay attention to the audience of this article. This post addresses a problem that teachers face: the overuse of “to be” verbs. Additionally, no one says that student writers (or anyone else) should eliminate all “to be” verbs. The last paragraph of the article mentions a good guideline: one per paragraph. That seems reasonable.

    By the way, you used seven “to be” verbs in your first paragraph. Physician, heal thyself 🙂

  25. Russ
    December 21st, 2012 at 14:51 | #25

    Who decided “to be” verbs were bad in the first place? Honestly, for decades it’s perfectly acceptable to use passive voice when speaking or writing – now the use of passive voice is viewed as unacceptable. Just like the expression “went missing”, what exactly does that mean? If someone went someplace, it usually indicates they did so willingly, but the expression “went missing”, in it’s truest form, is not used in that fashion. Sometimes change for the sake of change makes little, if any sense. So I repeat my initial question/statement; what is so wrong with using passive voice in writings of today?

  26. December 21st, 2012 at 17:18 | #26

    Of course, passive voice is really another discussion. “To be” verbs don’t necessitate use of passive voice. However, since it has been brought up by you, passive voice is not often found in my own prose. No wonder.

    I particularly find irritating the mandated use of passive voice in educational research. I’ve never been convinced that passive voice divorces the social scientist from the experimental design and findings. How silly.

  27. February 18th, 2013 at 19:32 | #27

    Wow, I just came across this page while searching for some resources to give to our translators/writers to help them cut down on their “to be” usage. It IS a great resource! 😉

    “Who decided “to be” verbs were bad in the first place?”
    To be verbs are not “bad” by themselves. But their repetition weakens the writing and puts the reader to sleep.

  28. Kat Pike
    March 20th, 2013 at 12:15 | #28

    My English teacher sent us this link and it explains to-be verbs so well! Thanks mrs b!

  29. May 12th, 2013 at 20:05 | #29

    Thank you so much for this in-depth article. I have been working (and looking for ways to word things differently) on a similar item myself to help me get better in my writing and to help other authors looking for publication.

    Hopefully, one day younger students won’t be taught to write using these types of verbs and then they they can build the correct habits from the beginning.

  30. June 6th, 2013 at 11:05 | #30

    While I agree in general with your concept, consider this,”Classical music can be very sophisticated.” It is general, non-exclusive yet still uses a “to be” verb.

    It isn’t so much whether they are used, but if they are used properly. Nothing is absolute. No, not even death and taxes. It is unproven abut death, either way. Nor have I paid taxes, income taxes at least, for a decade.

  31. Sandra Powell
    June 11th, 2013 at 18:05 | #31

    Algernon :
    First, your problems aren’t necessarily problems.
    1) The first problem you identify with “to-be” verbs is not a problem. It is quite legitimate to say “I am hungry” even if you’ll be full in an hour. At the time you say it, you are hungry. What if a child says, “I am five years old”? Would you prefer them to say, “I feel five years old”? Regardless of whether a state of being is permanent or temporary, it still exists at the time of feeling it.
    2) “Classical music is often sophisticated.” Problem solved. Also, “Classical music has a sophisticated structure.” is just as truth-claiming, even without the “to-be” verb.
    3) & 4) Are the same point. Lacking specificity is the same as being vague. “To-be” verbs, like all verbs, are as specific or vague as the rest of the sentence allows. “This school is the highest-scoring school on all measures of academic excellence and student satisfaction.”
    5) “It had been raining.” Who or what is the “It”? The problem is not the verb, it’s the indefinite pronoun.
    Second, your solutions aren’t necessarily solutions. (There’s that pesky “to-be” verb again!)
    1) This is okay. (“Is”!)
    2) You’ve removed the “to-be” verb by creating a more complex sentence. Most people wouldn’t write “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” anyway. This is a false problem. At worst, they would write, “The monster was creeping in the dark tunnel,” which includes “was”, but only as part of the past progressive tense. However, a better solution to your manufactured problem is, “The monster crept down the tunnel.”
    3) This is acceptable. (“Is”!)
    4) Again, you’ve created a false problem. The two sentences in your example have more problems than merely a bad use of “to-be” verbs.
    You had to go out of your way to create artificially bad problems which we would never encounter in most writing. “To-be” is not the problem you make it out to be.
    This looks simply like some rant about somebody’s person peeve. Yes, over-use of “to-be” verbs can be boring and indicative of problems. However, the solution is not to replace ALL “to-be” verbs without judgement!

    A pleasure to read the well-reasoned arguments of someone who understands linguistics. I do not understand the rants, either.
    BE as a copular verb is neither superior nor inferior to other copular verbs such as “seem” or “feel.” All copular verbs serve to link a subject with an adjective subject complement that characterizes or describes the subject in some way. English does not permit “He happy” or “This book the most exciting I have ever read,” though other languages get rid of the linking copula here… would English be somehow better or stronger if we eliminated the copula entirely? I don’t think so.
    BE as an auxiliary verb is essential to progressive tense/aspects such as “birds were singing in the still twilight.” Of course, we could revise to “birds sang,” but we would then lose the descriptive/stop-time function of the progressive in narrative.

    I don’t understand why people want to strip the language of resources that enrich it. BE does not weaken writing. In fact, BE is invisible and unnoticed in good writing. The problem with bad writing is not the verb BE: it is the lack of good, strong, specific content words.

    Instead of substituting other words for BE, resulting in contrived and awkward sentences, why not encourage your students to develop a stronger and more varied vocabulary? It would be better than making up artificial style rules without authority or reason.
    The vendetta against BE makes me angry. It is prejudice without understanding.

  32. June 12th, 2013 at 17:08 | #32

    Sandra,

    Wow. Glad you got that off your chest. Watch the vague pronoun references in your writing. Some of your painstaking responses can BE quite confusing.

    Seriously, overuse of the “to be” remains a serious problem for intermediate, middle, high school, and university students. Eliminating some of these crutch words empowers communication with the “content words” you rightly advocate.

  33. Chris Halterman
    January 5th, 2014 at 10:57 | #33

    How do I say I was born without using to be verbs

  34. January 6th, 2014 at 17:34 | #34

    Why would you not use the “was” in that sentence? The purpose of the article IS to help student writers de-emphasize the use of the “TO BE” verbs in order to use stronger nouns and verbs.

  35. John
    March 16th, 2014 at 12:16 | #35

    @Mark Pennington
    I fail to see how promoting awkward writing among the students of high schools helps them in the long run. High school was the worst time of my life in terms of writing due to the simple fact that I could not write anything using my normal thought flow. This to be verb stuff nearly made me hate writing.
    Everything I wrote I had to rewrite to exclude to be verbs. Everything I wrote was awkward. It took me about 4 time as long to write a simple essay when i had to pay attention to that stuff.

  36. March 16th, 2014 at 15:14 | #36

    With respect to your writing, I sincerely wish your high school ELA teachers had let you use “to be” verbs.

  37. Enver
    March 29th, 2014 at 18:50 | #37

    Given that none of the great authors of English has ever avoided so fundamental a part of the language as the verb “to be”, this article has to be (!) some of the most absurd and misleading advice out there. Most ridiculous of all is your questioning of the entirely idiomatic “It was nice of you to visit.” The “it” here is a dummy subject of the type that’s been used in everyday and literary English for centuries, and nobody would ever misunderstand the intended meaning. You’re creating problems where there aren’t any.

    Those teachers who go so far as to forbid their students to use “being words” know nothing about English usage and have no business teaching the language. Students reading this: please ignore the rubbish that’s being fed to you and actually pick up a book written by any well-regarded author. You will soon find dozens of instances of “to be” (not to mention many examples of the passive). Please tell me how Shakespeare should have rephrased “To be or not to be? That is the question.”

    That indeed *is* the question.

  38. March 31st, 2014 at 20:54 | #38

    You are simply flat out wrong with respect to the masters. Your example proves my point. Read how many to-be verbs Shakespeare uses in that passage. Those he uses, he usesfor purpose and effect, not as a lazy approach to writing or to avoid the use of strong nouns and verbs.

    Remember, the thrust of this article includes solid advice to improve student writing. The object is to limit the use of to-be verbs and, instead, use more powerful word choices. Methinks thou protest too much.

  39. Enver
    April 1st, 2014 at 21:44 | #39

    By my count, Shakespeare uses the verb “to be” eight more times in that soliloquy, not six as you claim above. (I’ve included the text below, with all instances of the verb marked with asterisks.) This number isn’t high, but neither is it all that low. Apparently, there are teachers out there who would actually penalize such a well-written piece because its author has dared to include one of the commonest verbs out there. And you yourself advocate no more than one “to be” verb per paragraph. As I said, students should pick up a book by any well-regarded author and test the validity of the “standard” that you and other so-called educators are trying to set. Your “rules” are meaningless if they have no support in actual usage.

    To *be, or not to *be–that *is the question:
    Whether *’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
    No more–and by a sleep to say we end
    The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh *is heir to. *’Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to *be wished. To die, to sleep–
    To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, *there’s the rub,
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause. *There’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life.
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
    The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office, and the spurns
    That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    *Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprise of great pitch and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry
    And lose the name of action. — Soft you now,
    The fair Ophelia! — Nymph, in thy orisons
    *Be all my sins remembered.

  40. Anglophone in Babylon
    July 14th, 2014 at 04:34 | #40

    Dear Mr. Mark Pennington,

    Thank you for a very helpful, and practical guide to reducing the use of “to-be” verbs.

    I wonder if you would consider taking on one of my bugbears: the forward slash (/). It has become the bane of my existence as the resident editor and commentator on (generally younger) colleagues’ drafts.

    You use it once yourself: “Post a list of the “to-be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies/examples listed above for student reference.” Some of the other people here use a slash multiple times in the course of just a couple of paragraphs.

    Why the slash? Is it because you think it serves a particularly useful purpose? Or were you tired and didn’t want to type “and”? If you meant “and”, why did you use it there and not everywhere? What rules determine when to use a slash, and when to write out “and” or “or”?

    I’m not trying to be nitpicky, but to show how quickly it has become the universal short-cut, and even punctuation mark, without anybody being able to justify why they use it. A few style guides now allow it as a substitute for “or” (without explaining why we shouldn’t dispense with “or” entirely). Apart from ruining the aesthetics of the printed word, that would be OK if it were the only use to which people put the slash. But I have seen it substitute for “and”, the hyphen (e.g., “hunter/gatherer” instead of “hunter-gatherer”), the comma, the semi-colon, and the period.

    Even worse, I have seen academic papers get approved in which the author uses the slash to separate two similar words, because he or she cannot decide which one is best. That falls just short of the criminal, in my opinion.

    I work in an international working environment, and all of our official meetings are translated into one or more languages besides English. Imagine the frustration of the interpreter who has to decide on the spot how to interpret the word “slash” when uttered by a speaker who couldn’t be bothered to speak the words “and” or “or” or to choose which word fits best.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  41. July 14th, 2014 at 07:23 | #41

    Certainly. The slash is often misused. See my post at https://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-teach-slashes/

  42. Anglophone in Babylon
    July 14th, 2014 at 07:44 | #42

    Oops. I posted before seeing that you included a link to a posting on the slash. I hadn’t noticed that “comments are closed” before I posted this.

    So, you write, “In informal writing, use a slash to separate dates, abbreviate, or to mean or.” I seem to not be able to find any guidance on when to use the slash in formal writing. But let’s ignore the formal-informal distinction.

    Surely you have noticed that people so abuse the slash that its meaning is totally ambiguous nowadays. In the example I quote above, it seems to me that you actually used the slash to mean “and”, not “or”. But, again I ask, why use it on some occasions and not on others? Can you imagine how ugly a piece of text would looks were all the incidences of “or” replaced by a slash?

    I’ll cite you an example of how use and abuse of the slash ends up wasting my time. A couple of months ago, a colleague who was trying to set up a meeting sent me an e-mail that read, “Are you available for a meeting on 4/5 May?”

    I asked, “Do you mean 4 AND 5 May — i.e., both days?” or “4 OR 5 May — i.e., one or the other of the days?”

    He wrote back, “AND”. But then he went on to explain that he was talking about a two-hour meeting.

    I had to write back, “Unless you are planning one from 11 PM on the 4th through 1 AM on the 5th, I am assuming you actually meant ‘OR’. Yes, I am available on the 5th, but not on the 4th.”

    And this guy is a graduate of Columbia University!

    We both could have saved a lot of time had he typed three more key strokes than just the one used to type the slash.

    What writers too often forget is that time they spend ensuring clarity yields big savings in time for everybody else who has to read his or her text.

  43. July 14th, 2014 at 07:56 | #43

    Agreed, but it is acceptable for informal writing, i.e., texting. I would pluralize all gender references whenever possible.

  44. Caroll
    July 18th, 2015 at 02:21 | #44

    Thanks for this post! I think it is really useful. Where I can find more information about academic writing?

  45. anon
    November 17th, 2015 at 18:31 | #45

    @Algernon
    Just like to note that “has” is also technically a to be verb.

  46. December 28th, 2015 at 10:19 | #46

    No, I wouldn’t agree. Not all helping and/or linking verbs are “to be” verbs. The “to be” refers to the unconjugated base form of the verb and, of course, serves as the infinitive form. Thus, first person present am and are, second person are, and third person is and are; first and third person past was and were, second person past were; future will be; perfect and progressive being; participle been.

  47. ELA
    May 11th, 2016 at 20:36 | #47

    @Enver
    Using weak verbs leads to inefficient and vague writing. Take the example “He is being annoying towards his friend.” Instead, using “He annoys his friend” leads to a much more concise and effective sentence.

  48. ELA
    May 11th, 2016 at 20:38 | #48

    @Courtney
    Try Hester caused the problem, or causes the problem.

  1. July 15th, 2011 at 22:57 | #1
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