To Be or Not To Be: IS that the Question?
1.whenever possible, have a clear concrete subject and
2.use vibrant, strong verbs.
Under those two guidelines, specific rules apply:
Make what you're writing about the subject of your sentence.
Whenever possible, if a human agent is present or implied in the sentence, use that human agent as the subject.
Avoid the automatic use of forms of to be (the most over-used and mis-used verb in the English language).
Avoid empty subjects and clutter (there is, there are, there were and the ever popular the reason is because).
Determine who or what is really doing what.
To demonstrate some of the above principles and rules, let's unpack the following sentence:
Darlene is a teacher in Mexico.
Darlene acts as the clear, concrete subject. We can't get any clearer than that.
But what is Darlene really doing in that sentence? Is she really ising? Or is she really teaching?
She really is teaching; she is not ising.
Darlene teaches in Mexico.
We now have eliminated the flabby verb is and replaced it with a much stronger, vivid verb, teach.
Before submitting a final draft essay for grading, my students must assess their essays for sentence focus. Though a painstaking process, if students hold their feet to the fire and do the work, they not only find wildly unfocused sentences and correct them, they also find numerous miscellaneous errors and sentences that appear to be experiencing some sort of linguistically psychotic break (sentences with which even nerdy English teacher-types sometimes struggle to untangle and make sense out of). To recast those sentences, students (at least those who really work the process) engage in word-smithing – finding the precise subject and verb that suits their needs, sculpting their sentences, finessing their language – an English teacher's hallucination turned reality.
One of my students, in the process of eliminating her automatic and abundant use of forms of to be (which by the way, students often cannot even articulate: they use the forms, but cannot identify those forms when asked – to be: is, am, are, was, were), came up with a ingenious idea: simply contract the form of to be, joining it to the subject with an apostrophe. Thus, in this student's essay analyzing political ads, I tripped over such sentences as:
The ad's showing McCain standing at a podium, speaking to a crowd.
The ad's sending the message that Obama's the best candidate for President.
And my favorite:
The voter's viewing the ad never knowing how manipulative it's.
Every time this student came across a sentence which used a form of to be (primarily is – which she used in almost every other sentence) she would simply contract it. As we discussed her paper and her process in conference, she told me, “Yes, I really wanted to eliminate my overuse of to be. That seemed to be the easiest way I could do it. It worked pretty well, didn't it?”
Yet she had not eliminated her use of to be – she had merely disguised it – and in the process, created confusion for her readers. Her incessant use of apostrophes to contract the verb and join it with the subject made for a huge distraction as I read and effectively clouded much of the meaning of her sentences.
Initially, I felt her struggle with and resolution of her sentence focus problem revealed an alienation and disconnect from her native tongue. But she is not as disconnected and alienated as one might believe. She is actually beginning to appropriate the language of our classroom, the language of a working, thinking writer (though she does not quite understand what all that language means). She is constructing herself as a writer, engaged in the analysis and craft of writing. Her approach tells me that to some degree, she pays attention, for she clearly received the message that sentence focus matters. And her process also brings to the fore some of her finer qualities: her creativity and ability to problem-solve and her willingness to push through a time-consuming, mundane process to achieve her goal.
Now, how many times did I use a form of to be (as part of my sentence, not in an example sentence)? And can you recommend a way to recast those sentences using a strong, vivid verb?
(Of course, sometimes the use of to be IS appropriate. But IS this one of 'em?)