“To Be” or Not “To Be”: Help For Distressed Writers

December 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

Grammar Police BadgeEvery day, know-it-all writers patrol online critique groups in a quest to rid manuscripts of “to-be” verbs. One anonymous reviewer suggested that a writer remove all instances of the word “was” from her manuscript. After reading such misguided advice, I decided to devote today’s blog post to this topic.

The Difference Between Active Voice and Passive Voice

Many writers contend that “to be” is always passive and must be avoided; however, it’s a myth that using “to be” in any form constitutes the passive voice. Consider the difference between active voice and passive voice. In an active sentence, the subject is performing the action.

Example of active voice:

Santa fills the stocking.

(Santa is the subject. Santa is the one doing something.)

Example of passive voice:

The stocking is filled by Santa.

In the passive case, the target of the action is placed in the subject position.

For more examples, see the exercises here.

Now look at this sentence: “I am holding a candy cane.” It’s written in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is: “The candy cane is being held by me.”

Clearly, the word “was” (and other “to-be” verbs) cannot be eliminated from writing. The English language employs many tenses. Some tenses use auxiliary verbs. An article by Anne Allen provides additional commentary on this subject.

When To Use Passive Voice

Some science professors prefer the passive voice for lab reports, because they feel it sounds more objective.

Example of active voice in a lab report:

Then we added copper sulfate to the test tube.

Example of passive voice in a lab report:

Copper sulfate was added to the test tube.

People who want to be deceptive (or conceal the subject) often use the passive voice.

Example of deceptive use of passive voice:

Thousands of medical records have been lost.

Written in the active voice, the sentence would pinpoint the culprit:

Dr. Smith lost thousands of medical records.

It’s easy to see why English teachers prefer active voice. Writing in passive voice often results in a lack of clarity. For further reading, see an article by The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

When To Eliminate “To-Be” Verbs

Unfortunately, many writers rely on “to-be” verbs, and sometimes they aren’t as powerful as other verbs. In other cases, they result in awkward or wordy sentences.


Weak writing: Lorraine is loud when she is arguing with her husband.

Stronger writing: Lorraine bellows like a fish wife when she argues with her husband.

Weak writing: The food at the school cafeteria is terrible.

Stronger writing. The food at the school cafeteria tastes bland.

Weak writing:  Sylvia was introduced to classical music at a young age.

Stronger writing: Sylvia’s mother introduced her to classical music at a young age.

Weak writing:  Every time an attempt was made to call for help, he covered her mouth.

Stronger writing: Every time she attempted to call for help, he covered her mouth.

Weak writing: Ellen is afraid of sharks.

Stronger writing: Ellen fears sharks.

Weak writing: The moon was covered by clouds.

Stronger writing: The moon, covered by clouds, warned of a late-night rainstorm.

A handout from The Writing Center at St. Louis Community College provides more examples.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share them here. (Comments are moderated.)

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne


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