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To Be Is Not To Be Clear

Your first step toward clear writing begins when One-Minute Editor reveals you have over-used the verb, "to be."

Now, "to be" is a perfectly good verb in all its forms. See, I just used it to equate one thing with another ("to be" = verb). The sky is blue. (sky=blue).

The various forms of "to be" also serve vital functions in good writing, both alone and as helpers:

  • I was sick.
  • She will be happy.
  • They are gone.
  • We will return.
  • These are good examples.
And we should never forget how vital "to be" is to existentialists and those who can quote but a single line of Shakespeare:

To be or not to be. That is the question.

But the over-use, mis-use and abuse of "to be" ruins more writing than any other grammatically correct mistake.

Take this example adapted from a term paper submitted to one of my UCLA classes:

It is clear that the widespread literacy that is in the world today is something that started with Gutenberg's invention of moveable type.

While grammatically correct, the writer wandered about his point rather than getting to it quickly.

Focus now on "is."

It is clear that the widespread literacy that is in the world today is something that started with Gutenberg's invention of moveable type.

Uhm ... that wanders and buries the point. Someone may find it immediately boring and skip over it. In that case, you may as well not have written it.

Cut To The Chase

To start, locate the action by asking, "who is doing what to whom?" The logical answers lie in the following candicates:

  • Gutenberg
  • Moveable Type
  • literacy

Clearly Gutenberg and his invention of moveable type act upon literacy.

We also need an active verb, rather than all those passive "is" verbs. How about "started?"

Using that guide, we can construct a sentence that reads:

Gutenberg's invention of moveable type started the widespread literacy in the world today.

Much shorter (13 words versus 23 -- slightly more than half as many words).

Writing shorter conveys your point faster, clearer, more powerfully. What pops a balloon faster: pressing on it very hard with your index finger, or using a tiny of force to push a needle into it? Concentrated force trumps brute force in nature and good writing.

With that in mind, we can improve this sentence by looking for prepositions and their phrases:

  • of moveable type
  • in the world today
Prepositions, like "to be" verbs, have good uses. But they often beg for editing. Let's try turning the prepositional phrases into modifiers:

Gutenberg's moveable type started today's widespread global literacy.

This sentence contains 8 words, versus the original's 23. All the thought, all the facts, all the point the writer wanted to make. But this cuts to the chase.

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