Two hundred years before the French and the Australians independently discover how to make pencils, a British playwright scratched out a pretty good story on parchment paper with a Spanish quill pen. He decided his protagonist would hang out with a bunch of gravediggers and question the meaning of life. He started Act Three, Scene One with the greatest soliloquy ever written. The thirty-year-old Prince of Denmark, Hamlet says: “To be or not to be ….”
Many professional editors and writers consider this the first and last instance in which the verb “to be” made a meaningful appearance in literature.
I spent some years as an editor at the second largest magazine in the world, the Reader’s Digest. Overuse of the verb “to be” guaranteed rejection. Excessive usage includes all the stepchildren and cousins of the offending verb: am, is, are, isn’t, aren’t, was, were, wasn’t, weren’t, been and being.
Indicative, subjunctive, conditional, participle, gerund – all suffer from guilt with the infinitive of “to be.” Charles Dickens, with the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, would start off behind the eight ball.
I say “almost” because, in my career as an editor and writer, I did meet one exception. I talk about Claude Joubert in my blog post: Can Great Content overcome Poor Writing? I have personally known hundreds of writers, but only the one exception.
To see if you suffer from overuse of the verb “to be”, follow this suggestion. Take a few pages of your manuscript, or a whole chapter, and circle the number of times the slothful infinitive and its family appear. Use a red pen, a nice metaphor. The best editor I ever knew used a green pen, but he was an advertising copywriter always reaching for the stars, who used a green pen for everything: Leo Burnett.
If you find more than two, possibly three red circles per page, you need to raise the blood pressure of your writing. Replace the red-circled dullards with active verbs.
Consider these two sentences at the start of a recently published book: “Destiny is defining the journey of your life and the path you wish to take. This is something that is not defined by anyone and it is waiting for you to define.”
You cannot find a dictionary anywhere with this definition of “destiny.” In fact, you discover the opposite. Destiny remains predetermined. Also, the second sentence started with an unclear antecedent and forgot a comma after “anyone.” But let’s work on the “is” problem.
“Can the journey of your life, the path you wish to take, fulfill your destiny? Will you find the secret that defines the predetermined events normally beyond human power and control?”
The overuse of the verb “to be” vanishes. The sentences spring to life. You still have the pesky problem of destiny’s well-defined and irreversible predetermination. The author needs a different word. Perhaps “future” works better. Whatever. This discussion deals with the verb “to be.”
When you replace the lazy infinitive with an active verb, make sure you don’t change the meaning of what you write. We chuckled politely at the Reader’s Digest when a young writer changed “My brother is taller than me” into “My brother had a few extra inches.”
We settled on: “My brother grew a few inches taller.”
And we all agreed: “To be is NOT to be.”