“To be” or not “to be”: A challenge

Here’s my lightning talk on this topic (at the Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 5, 2014):

This short post below represents an early version of a substantial chapter in my book, Word Up! You can download the complete chapter, “To Be or Not To Be,” for free from my “Excerpts” page.

Here’s my challenge to you. Dump to be. Get rid of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be, won’t be, and so on. At least avoid using them as main (linking) verbs, as in “Our product is superior.” Give your readers an action verb instead. Tell them what your superior product does.

Take special care to weed out there are, here is, and it’s in their various forms.

Limit to be verbs to these uses:

  • to support another verb (“You’re learning.”)
  • to comment on existence (“We think, therefore we are.”)
  • to emphasize an equation (“The medium is the message.”)
  • to play with a to be expression (“It’s lonely in the middle too.”)
  • to create an aesthetic effect, such as a cadence (“If you’re wasteful with words, why should I trust you with money?”)

When you recast to be sentences in creative ways, you’ll use fewer clichés, fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, and in general fewer words. You’ll use more (and more forceful) verbs — the strongest part of speech there is. The strongest part of speech, period.

Try it. The difficulty might surprise you. Persistence will reward you.


(I first published this article, in a slightly different form, in the spring 1991 issue of IABC Communicator, the newsletter of the Central New York chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.)

10 thoughts on ““To be” or not “to be”: A challenge

  1. Definitely more powerful writing and speaking, but IS is just so easy. Ooops, I mean IS just comes out so much easier!

  2. Keith, Thank you for mentioning E-Prime (short for English-Prime). No, I hadn’t heard of it before. I just reviewed a couple of web sites on the topic. Fascinating. I wonder why David Bourland, who proposed E-Prime, chose the term “prime.”

  3. Wend, You’ve nailed the point (delightfully). The writing that comes out easily is usually not the best writing. I mean, be suspicious of the first words that come to you. I mean, look hard at any words that come easily.

  4. The idea of completely omitting the “to be” is really interesting to me. I teach history at a high school level and have given some thought to experimenting with it in some journal writing assignments. Alfred Korzybski had some intriguing ideas about how “to be” leads to significant confusion. His ideas are what got me first into the concept.

  5. Keith, The exercise that you propose for your students would have to stimulate their thinking and improve their writing skills.

    I hadn’t considered that “to be” verbs inherently lead to confusion. Worth contemplating. According to this view, recasting “to be” sentences not only strengthens your writing but also enables you to “state a more accurate reality,” as Urban Scout put it in his rationale for rewriting his book in E-Prime. See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime

    FWIW, my title (“To be or not to be: A challenge”) mimics Bourland’s (“To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology”) only because my mind was working the same way that his was. I hadn’t heard of his book until your comment got me investigating E-Prime.

  6. Thanks for your note. You’ll love the full chapter, “To Be or Not To Be,” available as a free PDF on my “Excerpts” page.

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