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.