Updated: Feb 21
“To be or not to be. That is the question,” Hamlet asked.
Persuade your readers more effectively by answering Hamlet: “not to be.” The verb “to be” conjugates to am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been. Using “to be” as the main verb in a sentence sucks the blood out of it. Change “to be” main verbs to action verbs. Action verbs breathe, animate, and convey more information in less space.
A. The verb “to be” weakens the argument.
I discovered this phenomenon while reading the South Africa Supreme Court of Appeal’s opinion concluding the death penalty violated the South African Constitution. Justice P. Chaskalson used the verb “to be” and passive voice pervasively, and that technique removed all of the actors from the opinion until the result appeared as if by magic: A is B; how can anyone argue with that?
That trick works well enough for judges issuing decisions, but for writers trying to persuade readers, it weakens the argument. Using the verb “to be” allows the reader simply to disagree, and the whole argument falls apart. If the reader disagrees that A is B in an early link in the argument, the reader can ignore anything that comes afterward.
Consider this syllogism: climate change is bad, and governments stop bad things, so the government will stop climate change. If the reader agrees that climate change is bad, you have persuaded no one of anything; but if the reader disagrees, she not need read the rest of the argument.
B. Which sentence persuades most effectively?
This sentence uses “to be” as main verbs:
The United States is responsible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Try these instead:
The United States seeks to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
By signing the Paris Agreement, the United States committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Ten words; ten words; fourteen words. Although the third sentence uses more words, it introduces another actor and action, and it more clearly identifies the source and nature of the United States’ responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
C. Using “to be” persuades no one.
Using “to be” as the main verb in a sentence persuades no one because it merely states the writer’s conclusion. Consider this sentence:
“Using passive voice is wrong.”
When readers agree, that sentence wastes its words because it only reinforces their previous inclinations. When readers disagree, that sentence provides no reason for the readers to change their minds.
Consider another example:
“Crossing three lanes of traffic on a left-hand turn was illegal.”
That sentence could use an action verb to demonstrate the reasons for the conclusion:
“Smith violated Code Section 5 by crossing three lanes of traffic on his left-hand turn.”
Which sentence would persuade you to find him guilty?
D. Continue using “to be” as a helping verb.
In contrast to using “to be” as a main verb, using “to be” as a helping verb facilitates the action’s flow. Helping verbs modify the tenses of action verbs: “is bicycling,” “was digging,” or “would have been driving,” so they suffer from none of the flaws as using “to be” as the main verb.
E. Find and remove “to be” verbs as main verbs.
Changing “to be” verbs to action verbs takes work, but you can find them easily enough. Search your document for the various conjugations of the “to be” verbs, and determine whether you are using them as main verbs or as helping verbs. Replacing any main “to be” verbs with action verbs will breathe more life into your writing and persuade more readers.