Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.


3 responses to “Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

  1. The writing becomes more clear and compelling. I agree.
    Developing this skill will require time and thoughtful practice

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember learning
    Is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been
    But I dont remember the details about them.
    What is the classification of verb?
    They aren’t terrible words but I can see how using less of them tightens things up.


    • All these verbs are forms of the verb “to be.” The verb “to be” is the most irregular verb in English, but these words are all part of the same basic verb and all mean the same thing. This verb can be used as a linking verb (I am sick or Jane is a woman), as an existence verb (The shops are over there), as a helping verb, (Dad was eating pie or Aimee has been done with her homework for hours), or as an adjective or gerund (Jack, being tall, plays basketball or Being the oldest brings responsibilities).

      The verb “to be” is a weak verb. By that I mean it is nonspecific. You can write, “I am sick,” but we don’t know if you are vomiting, have a cold or feel feverish and chilled. If you replace that verb with a specific verb the writing becomes clearer. “My infected tooth aches. Passing a kidney stone can bring excruciating pain.”

      When we write definitions, we might feel forced to use the verb “to be” Define the Civil War, for example. “The Civil War was a four-year-long series of battles. . .” But there are other ways to approach a definition. “The Civil War, a four-year-long series of battles, decided whether the US would stay united or would separate into to countries over the issue of slavery.”

      Is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been aren’t terrible words. (See? I just used one). But writers, especially students, overuse them because they are easy. Like “stuff” and “things,” these words require less thought. Writing improves with specific language, especially verbs.

      Liked by 1 person

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