The proverbial “proverbial”

My New Year’s resolution is to stop turning over plain old “new leaves.” From now on, the only kind I’ll be turning over will be “proverbial new leaves.” Nothing livens up a cliché like “proverbial.” It wafts away the tiredness effortlessly, like a breath of fresh air. A proverbial breath of fresh air.

Who knew writing could be so easy?

What about you? What’s your resolution?

“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.)