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. The best way to fix this paragraph is to make something happen with strong verbs.

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.


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