“To be” or not “to be” – Blame it all on Shakespeare!

February 9, 2011 § 9 Comments

Shakespeare did it!

With both parents writing professionally for years, I would have thought their influence should have rubbed off sooner than it did!

For instance, although Dad walked me through the proofing/editing stages of countless term papers and essays, all I remember from these sessions is this great little poem. I don’t know if Dad wrote it, but it’s become my secret to remembering what pronoun goes with which verb tense!

Oh, has her gone?
Oh, did her went?
Oh, has her left I all alone?
Us can never come to we!
Oh, cruel fate to I unkind,
To take she before and leave I behind!
It cannot was!

I’ll leave you to figure it out!

Mom contributed to my future career with little gems–sayings made in passing as she trekked from her office and typewriter to the coffee pot in the kitchen and back. But for the life of me, the only one I remember is:

“Never use the passive when you can use the active!”

I should crossstitch that one on a sampler and hang it above my laptop!

All this trouble with the passive voice I blame on Shakespeare. Our obsession with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy must take the blame for the over use of “to be”! Why else would we use it so much!

As an editor and as a writer, I’ve become so obsessed with its usage, that if I don’t  call it to the attention of at least one writer during a critique group session, I don’t feel like I’ve added my “two cents” worth! Now that’s creepy!

Seriously, though, why write

“she was going to the store for her mother”


“she skipped down the sidewalk, careful not to step on any cracks, heading to the grocery store with her mom’s list in her pocket”

sounds so much more fun!


“He was reading a book while he was eating.”


“He shoved another potato chip in his mouth and turned the page.”

Of course, there are those times in a story where “to be” is called for.
Oops! Change that!
“Of course, you may find you need to use the “to be” verb in your narrative.”
That’s better!

[Notice I changed the “there are” in the process of rewriting the sentence. Another pet peeve – “It was a dark and stormy night” won that famous worst-opening-line-in-a-novel contest for a reason! Avoid using “there are/was/were” and “it was/is” and find a more creative way to express yourself.]

I have an assignment for you. Open your latest opus, click on “Find” (right hand screen in “Home” in MS Word), and type “was” in the box. Now click on “Find Next”. Every time you find a “was” read the context and change the “was whatever” to an action verb.

And remember, you will need the “to be” verb, but reserve it for that special use! If not, your writing will become stale. Never give a reader an excuse to put down your book! Show the action, don’t just tell us about it!

Now, about those prepositions that you end your sentences with ….


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