What’s so bad about “be verbs?” (In case you’ve forgotten grammar school: I’m referring to parts of the verb “to be:” am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.) Rule number 4 of my personal 9 Rules for Writers is avoid “be verbs.” So what’s wrong with “be verbs?” I have my reasons, and like fairy-tale bears, magic wishes, and prostitutes to Charlie Sheen’s hotel room, my reasons come in threes.
Reason #1. They’re overused. “Be verbs” are the most commonly-used verbs in English. Read over the preceding sentences in this essay: all but one of them employ a “be verb.” It’s probably impossible to do away with these verbs entirely. Too many of our idioms require them, but moderation in everything is my motto. If you comb all the “be verbs” you possibly can out of your writing, you’ll still have plenty left over, believe me.
Reason #2. Be verbs don’t do anything. This to me is the most damning thing you can say about them. In a sentence such as “The sky was cloudy,” nothing happens. I hate that. Paraphrasing it to read, “Clouds adorned the sky,” only makes me queasy feeling. Better just to extract the one interesting piece of information – clouds – and insert it into a sentence where something actually goes on: “The Voice of God spoke from the clouds,” or “Flying saucers with their death rays and their Pepperoni Pleezer Snak Paks loomed menacingly above the clouds.”
Reason #3. Be verbs are commonly used in passive voice. Passive voice is when you take the subject of a sentence and make it an object: “Loomis built the house” becomes “The house was built by Loomis.” Contrary to popular opinion, passive voice is pretty cool, but you should use it only rarely. Clever writers like Franzen can employ it wittily; one section of Freedom is titled “Mistakes Were Made.” But even lesser writers can employ it to create emphasis to good effect. The sentence, “The makers of Tide brought you Days of Our Lives” just doesn’t have enough oomph. The advertisers know to say, “Days of Our Lives was brought to you by the makers of Tide.” “A dog bit the man” is perfectly satisfactory, but “An alligator bit the man” lacks the punch it deserves. Better to say, “The man was bitten by an alligator,” and save the surprise reptile guest star until the end. So passive voice is useful because it creates emphasis, but as a teacher of mine used to say, “If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.” He liked to say this very loudly, but then, he liked to say everything very loudly.
Passive voice is a lot like its first cousin, inverted syntax – which is also quite cool on occasion, “In God we trust,” is just a richer sentence than, “We trust in God” – a strong spice that should be used sparingly and with circumspection. If you use passive voice or inverted syntax too much, you end up, with, well…
This essay was written by me, and finished it now is. Emphasis can be created once in a while by passive voice, but too many sentences should not be put in passive voice nor inverted by the writer. Tiresome, it soon becomes. Enough is enough. (Inverted that last sentence also is, but tell the difference, you probably cannot.) The idea, by now, you surely get.