To be or not to be? Use it as little as possible

Hamlet wondered whether to keep living or kill himself. Writers ought to wonder whether the sentence they’re writing needs some form of to be. It would probably be better with some other verb.

Take a look at the first paragraph of an article someone submitted to one of my other blogs:

Healthy, sustainable living might not be a new concept, but it is now shifting the face of the residential realm. Sustainable design is not just some fad, but a solution to some of the most sinister challenges that we face as a global society. The good news is that the green ecosystem is growing ever larger in the heart of our concrete jungles. When superior knowledge and technology meets the care for the environment and human well-being, great things are bound to happen.

Doesn’t that make you eager to read on? No?

Amazingly, it contains hardly any finite verbs except “is” and “are.” It has a couple of present participles. “We face” appears in a relative clause and “meets” in a dependent clause, where the plural form belongs, by the way.

The author also chose a couple of stilted noun phrases and relies on adjectives and colorful imagery. for impact. At least she didn’t load it with passive voice.

Have I picked on one particularly careless author? No. I lose track of the times I have read constructions like “The reason ___ is ___ is because it is ___.” That’s right. Lazy writers can use “is” three times in a sentence where once might be more than enough.

The reason why so much writing is bad is because it is easy to write badly. OK. Let’s try that again.

People write badly because it’s easy.

(There. I used “is” only once.) Even skillful writers fall into the trap. But then they go back and edit their drafts and try to find verbs so that something actually happens.

Suggested improvement

Wouldn’t you be more likely to keep reading after this revised introduction?

(I divided it into three paragraphs. More than five lines of text online makes an article appear more difficult to read.)

People have cared about healthy, sustainable living at least since the first Earth Day almost half a century ago.

More recently, homebuilders and homeowners have turned increasing attention to sustainable housing design. They bring consciousness of green ecosystems into the heart of our cities and suburbs.

New design ideas and superior technology, can help solve some of our most menacing environmental challenges. Once they become mainstream, the future will look brighter.

Have I captured the author’s intent? Maybe. The vagueness of the original introduction’s first two sentences make it hard to know. And do the last two sentences really mean anything at all?  The article continued in a similar vein.

I have replaced all instances of “is” with better verbs. In the process, I also replaced the stilted phrase “residential realm” and the over-the-top “sinister.” Choosing active verbs forced me to be more precise in other ways.

“Is not a new concept” has two problems. The weak and flabby “is” introduces a negative statement. Prefer positive statements for clearer writing unless careful reasoning shows the need for a negative construction.

And if it’s not a new concept, can I give some idea when it started? Mentioning Earth Day provides some idea of when the public may have started to care about the environment.

Likewise, the paragraph ought to say something more about sustainable design than that it’s not a new fad. The rest of the original article doesn’t say much about it.  Why not treat it like the subject of a more informative article?

In that case, the phrase ought to appear in the first paragraph, but I’m only trying to make a point about writing.

“Concrete jungle” evokes urban areas with a dense concentration of high-rise buildings. The rest of the article makes no mention of them. I suspect green housing design appears mostly in neighborhoods of single-family dwellings and low-rise apartments.

I tried to figure out a good way to keep it, but accurate language ought to trump colorful phrases.

To be or not to be? Use to be only when it best conveys your meaning. Overuse practically guarantees vague prose springing from careless thinking. And no one will want to keep reading.

What’s a library without books? Some bookless libraries

empty bookshelves. library without booksI read about a library without books sometime in the late 1990s, I don’t remember what college or university in New York  had no room in its library for a computer lab.

So it opened one in another nearby building it owned and called it a branch library.

Why?

Because it was staffed with librarians.

In principle, it’s not the presence of a book collection that defines a library. A library simply requires librarians.

In recent years, however, libraries have experimented with bookless libraries based on digital technology. That is, they have books, just not printed books.

How is that likely to work out?  I’m not much impressed by what I’ve read. Continue reading

What do you know about your librarian, really?

library action figures. what librarians do

Library action figure with real shushing motion. Modeled on a respected librarian with a good sense of humor!

Librarians have a different reputation than they used to. Is it any better? Let’s see.

Do you remember, in It’s a Wonderful Life, what would have become of George Bailey’s wife if he had never existed?

Clarence the angel shows him she would never have married. She would have become an old maid. A librarian.

What about The Music Man? When we first meet Marian the Librarian, she has no friends.

And why should she? She’s full of book learning. She considers herself superior to townspeople who don’t come to the library. And she’s not very nice to people who don’t behave properly in the library when they do.

Ah yes. The stuffy spinster with a bun telling everyone to be quiet. That’s not the image anymore. Continue reading

Healthfinder.gov: Government websites you should know

healthfinder.gov screen shotHave you ever looked for health-related information on the web? Most people do, either for their own health or for someone they love.

Government information often does not appear on the first page of search results.

Therefore, few people think of it or know where to look for it. Healthfinder.gov is an award-winning site for the general public dedicated to prevention and wellness. Continue reading

What they say about the library: provocative quotations

library door, quotations on librariesWhen I graduated from library school, I went on a lot of informational interviews. One librarian told me, “Libraries have changed a lot since you were in library school.”

When I reminded her that I had graduated only two weeks earlier, she replied, “Like I said, libraries have changed a lot since you were in library school.”

Few modern institutions are more ancient than the library, and few are as consistently on the cutting edge of change.

So naturally people have talked and written a lot about libraries over the centuries.

Cicero, the Roman orator, said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” But what about now? Continue reading