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 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.


4 reasons to use direct quotes

Should you use direct quotes in writing both fiction and nonfiction in which there are people?  Definitely!

Below are examples from Akin by Emma Donoghue.  Akin is a novel about a 79-year-old former professor spending time with an 11-year-old street kid.  Part of the delight of the book is its dialog, especially the contrast between the two people’s world views reflected in their way of speaking.

So, why to use direct quotes? 

First, direct quotes show inflections, that is, how a speaker changes a word’s emphasis depending on verb tense, number, prefixes and suffixes and a use of modifiers.  Here, for example, the old man says,

“You must know singers with ludicrous stage names?  Like, ah 50 Cents.”

“50 Cent,” Michael said, pained.  “And it’s Ludacris.”

Here’s another example, with the old man asking the boy,

“Do you skateboard?”


“Oh, you prefer skating.  Ice or roller?”

“It’s called skating, dude.”

Second, direct quotes show regionalisms, ages, education, socioeconomic and other differences.  For example, the boy explains that his skateboard was stolen.

“They skated right past, dissing me.  Grandma said”—Michael quoted—“’This is a test from the Lord, are you going to hold on to your wrath?  Are you going to pass the test?’”

Here is another.  The boy asks,

“Are you a atheist?”

Noah corrected him:  “An atheist.”

“That’s what I said.”

“It’s an, rather than a, when it’s followed by a vowel:  an atheist.”

“Like you’re an asshole.”

Third, direct quotes show how a person puts a sentence together—using standard English or some other way.  The older man, Noah, often uses long and complex sentences, yet adjusts his way of speaking so the boy will better understand him.  The boy, on the other hand, uses really short sentences or phrases without concern for grammar.  For example, the boy tells of his Uncle Cody:

“Cody used to smoke till I got him Juuling.”


“Vapes, you know?  E-cigs?”

In another example, Michael sees a bunch of balloons tied to the front railing of a house.  He asks,”

“Did somebody get offed here?”

Fourth, direct quotes reveal personality.  From the few quotes I’ve just used, you can see that Noah, is an academic from an educated middle class background and out-of-touch with children, yet willing, even eager, to know the boy. Michael is more tentative about knowing Noah, preferring the safety of his phone.  He uses the language of the street as an intentional emotional barrier between himself and Noah.

I recommend you read Akin.  I suspect you too will delight in the dialog, just part of the treat of this well written novel.


“He’s just not that into you.”

If you have watched Sex and the City, you might remember a particular scene. Miranda has dated a man whom she likes, but he doesn’t phone to ask for another date.  She frets until the current boyfriend of Carrie says, “He’s just not that into you.”

“He’s just not that into me,” Miranda muses.  And like the snap of fingers, Miranda stops blaming herself for the relationship not progressing.  It’s not her fault.  He’s just not that into her.

That’s the same attitude we writers need when someone shrugs off our writing.    “She just doesn’t like my point of view.”  “He doesn’t get my humor.”  “She disagreed with what I say.”  “He thinks my story is too sad.”

And that’s okay.  Just because someone’s not into your writing doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  It means whatever you’re “selling,” they’re not “buying.”  Next!

Even writers who today are considered great have their critics.  Hemingway writes too plainly.  Shakespeare’s too hard to understand.  Henry James’s novels contain no action.  All Tolstoy’s women characters are either childlike or fallen.  Agatha Christie’s characters are one-dimensional.

The next time someone criticizes your writing, say to yourself,  “They’re just not that into me.”  And then move on.


How many names are too many names?

When you start to write a novel or a short story, how many characters should you introduce in the first scene?

I picked up the novel of a new-to-me but best-selling author tonight and started reading.  On the first page (really a half page), five characters were introduced along with their relationships to each other.  On the second page, four more people were named and their relationships.  On the third page, one more.  Ten names and a web of who knows how many relationships in two and a half pages of text.  None of them were developed enough to know more than “he’s a detective,” “she’s an au pair,” “she’s giving the party” and “he’s got a crush on the au pair.”

A bit into the second page I was flipping back to the first page to remind myself  who was who.  Then, befuddled, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew family tree-like relationships to keep characters straight.

Should this be necessary?  How many names are too many names?

I have never read any guidance on this topic.  Yet a maximum number of names is an important criterion for me to use to determine if I will keep reading.  If I find myself needing to draw family trees, I ask myself, “Is this worth reading?”  “No,” I almost always decide.  If an author can’t figure out how to introduce characters without confusing me, then the author can’t be that good.  I put the book back on the shelf and move on.

In college I needed to read Anna Karenina in English 101.  At the front of my translation was a list of characters which at first intimidated me.  But I rarely  consulted it.  Tolstoy had a way of introducing characters without overloading my short-term memory.  For the heck of it, I just now checked to count how many characters Tolstoy introduced by name in that novel’s first scene (about two pages).  The answer–three:  Stiva, his wife, Dolly, and one man named as part of a silly dream, a man whose name we realize immediately is not important.  Other people’s roles are mentioned—a French governess, an English governess, a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen-maid, a coachman, the children—but they are not named.  A reader needs to keep track of only two.  And one of those two we are learning about intimately since those pages are told from his point of view.

How many names are too many names?  I don’t know.  But when I am confused by the third page, that is too many names.

Quid pro quo–huh?

“Quid pro quo” has been dominating the news this past week, with people discussing whether President Trump’s saying to the president of Ukraine—“I would like you to do us a favor though”—is an example of “quid pro quo.”

student thinking about what to write

Newscasters use the phrase glibly, but I wonder how many listeners or readers know what “quid pro quo” means.

Many Latin phrases or abbreviations seem not to be taught in schools any more.  When I write, “e.g.,” students ask me what I mean.  When I tell them, they ask, Shouldn’t you write “ex”?

For the heck of it, see how many once commonly used Latin phrases or abbreviations you know.  Answers are below.




et al.






Ph. D.



quid pro quo






A.D. means Anno Domini or year of our Lord.  For the past 2,000 years, Europeans have kept track of time by using the birth of Jesus Christ as the starting point.  For example, 2019 A.D. means 2019 years after the birth of Christ.

a.m. means ante meridiem, before the middle of the day, before noon, morning

e.g. means exempli gratia, for example, for instance

et al. means and the others when referring to people

etc. means and the others when referring to inanimate objects

ibid. means ibidem, in the same place.  It is used in bibliographies to show that a second entry comes from the same place as the previous entry.

i.e. means that is or in other words

lb. means libra, scales, weight in pounds

N.B. means Nota Bene, note well, and is written in upper case letters

Ph. D. means Philosophiae Doctor, Doctor of Philosophy

p.m. means post meridiem, after the middle of the day, after noon

P.S. means post scriptum, after the text

quid pro quo means something for something, an exchange of goods or services contingent on each party doing what is promised

re. means concerning, in the matter of

sic means sic erat scriptum, thus it was written; used to show an error in the original which the person quoting has not changed

stat. means statim, immediately

v. means versus, against



The last word

When I was a newspaper editor years ago, one of my jobs was to read the competing newspapers on deadline to be sure my paper was covering every story important to our readers.  If we  missed something that our competition had covered,  a reporter would make a few calls and write a story — usually the same facts as in the other papers — but updated.Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.

Our obligation to our readers wasn’t to provide the end-all and be-all of news stories.  No, our obligation was to provide the facts as we knew them on deadline, realizing that later editions would have more facts or updated facts.  We rarely had the last word on an important story because there would always be later information.

Some writers become stymied by the infinite amount of information available on a given topic. The topic could be nonfiction such as what I did on my summer vacation or the best putters on the market today.   How can I cover it all ? (You can’t.)  The topic could be fiction such as flying to India or life in a boarding school.  How can I cover it all?  (You can’t.)

In children, I find this desire to cover everything is almost universal.  When they pick topics, they pick huge topics:  World War II, global warming, or the solar system.  When I tell them to limit the topic to say one moon of Saturn, fear fills their eyes as if there isn’t nearly enough information about one measly moon.

This same desire to say all that can be said confounds adults too.  Maybe you want to write the definitive book on war.  It can’t be done.  You need to reduce the scope of your topic to a particular battle or the development of a particular bomber or the role of a particular soldier.

With children, the teacher says, “Do it!,” and the essay gets written, good, bad or ugly.  With adults, the book might never materialize because there is always another interview to conduct, more data to collect, another book to read.

What should you do if you are overwhelmed by information?  First, think small.  Think minute.  Decide on one teeny, tiny aspect of your topic.  Second, research it well but within the confines of a deadline.  Third, write, but stick to a deadline to finish your first draft.  And last, celebrate a job well done.  Not perfectly done, but done.

One of the great rewards of working for a newspaper is a daily product.   At a certain time the first edition rolls off the presses, and reporters and editors bask in a job done.  Not perfectly done, but done.  Done well enough with the facts at hand on deadline.

An hour later, somewhere across town, in a competing newsroom, another editor would be searching through my newspaper to be sure her reporters were covering all the news her readers would want to know about.  And her reporters would be making calls to update stories, knowing that they, too, would not have the last word.

Gender and number distinctions in English

Some languages force distinctions which other languages ignore.  And some languages drop distinctions which other languages find useful.

“Call me ‘they’ please.”

For example, the French say “tu”  for “you” when they mean an intimate friend or family member.  For strangers or for formal situations, the French say “vous.”

In English, we say “you” for everyone—friend, stranger, sister—and for singular and plural.  Whereas the French need two words—“tu” and “vous”—English-speakers need only one.

This can bring both a pain and pleasure.  For English speakers learning French, needing to remember when to use “tu” and “vous” can seem a needless distinction.  If one word suffices in English, then why can’t one word suffice in French?

For French speakers learning English, the ease of learning one word, “you,” is a pleasure.  But they might think something is lost—that fine distinction between “tu” and “vous.”  Sometimes “you” might seem too impersonal.

Something of this same forced distinction applies to the new use of “they” to mean the singular as well as the plural.  I get the reasoning and feel sympathy for people for whom gender is not clear cut.  But for me, after a lifetime of “they” meaning the plural, I find it strange that “they” now should include “he” or “she.”

I feel like the French must feel when asked to include everyone in “you.”  Or like Iranians—who have three or four words for “love”—when asked to fit those shades of meaning into one English word.  Or like English speakers with at least nine verb tenses plus modal verb tenses—when asked to express all that nuance into a single Chinese verb.

I wish English had a singular personal pronoun unrelated to gender, something like “it” which could apply to people.  How about “ye”? Or “thee”?  It seems easier to wrap my mind around a new pronoun than to expand and confuse the meaning of a traditional word.

Yet, English, like all languages, changes as new needs arise.  And English speakers, like me, adapt.