Saturday, November 5, 2016

lunacy in writing: “to be” is not to be?

Apparently, I've not been keeping up so well with the latest trends in writing.

Apparently, in the not so distant past, the foremost grammarians of the English-speaking world gathered upon some rocky, craggy, storm-wracked island in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from any contaminating outside influence, where with grim visages and grim grimoires they discussed amongst their privileged few the ultimate and absolute answer to that grim and troubling question proffered by the great English playwrite centuries ago, spilling red ink like blood upon that fabled and mysterious Altar of the Proofreading Editor, and finally with grim and absolute certainty and with authority like unto Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai they did state that, indeed, forthwith, unto eternity future, from this time forth and even forever more, “to be” is no longer to be.

In case, like myself, you have not heard the news, you need only look into that ultimate resource for all authority, the internet, to learn about this great proclamation. There are several sites which make the claim that they have advice which will help one write better, and maybe they are right, but they are sites which claim using “to be” verbs, words like “is” and “are” and “was”, are to be avoided because they for some reason weaken one's writing and are essentially useless.

Perhaps the best answer to this idea is something pithy, like “Bollux!” Or, more appropriately, "That is bollux!"

When this new and strange rule was recently brought to my attention, when someone in no uncertain terms said that I should never use “was” or “had”, one of my first thoughts was to check with writers who have had no small amount of success as writers, and see how their writings measured up to this rule. For example, I went to one of the classics, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and looked at the first few paragraphs of that story, and saw several examples of these evil “to be” words. In fact, looking now at the first couple of paragraphs of the story, I count “was” being used 7 times, along with one time for “were”, and 3 times for “had”.

And I didn't stop with what some might call an old fuddy-duddy of a writer, either. No, I needed to look at more contemporary examples, too. Like Terry Pratchett's “Guards! Guards!”. The story opens with a small section about dragons, and in this small section, I counted 7 usages of “is” counting an “isn't” and “there's”, as well as an “are” and a “were”.

I also looked at some examples from modern popular writers, like James Patterson and Tom Clancy, and with them, too, I saw those dreaded and forbidden words being used.

Now, I know, some of the people who say that we should not use “to be” verbs are not trying to make it some kind of absolutely absolute rule. But the fact that it's even a rule is simply disturbing on all kinds of level.

"To be" verbs are among the most common words in English, and there is a reason for that—they do important work. They are humble, noble, useful words. To deny them their place, to pretend they are not important, is simply lunacy, and I will take the practices of the real writers who can skillfully use these words over the people who for whatever reasons consider them to be no longer useful.

To forbid the use of “to be” verbs, or to try to create some kind of artificial limit on how often they should be used, is hardly addressing the problem. “Is” was, is, and will never be the problem.

No doubt, “to be” verbs can be used wrongly, and that is something a writer should be wary of. But that is also the point. The problem is misuse, not use. To say that we should wholly scarp these verbs because some unidentified person somewhere at some time has determined them to be no longer needed, that they somehow weaken our writing and show laziness, is absurd.

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