Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To Be or Not To Be...Get Rid Of It (And Competition News)

The competition is over. It was hard to pick the winners...okay, so it was dead easy when someone else picked them, but we have our winners.

Milo James Fowler, Kelley and Nick Wilford.

And just to show how nice we are, the three winners will receive all four ebooks on Starfish's current list. Let me know your email addresses by emailing me at martin(at)starfishpc(dot)co(dot)uk and I'll send them by return email.

Thanks to everyone for taking part.

And now, for this week's bit of writing help.


In his book 'Help', Oliver Burkeman relates the tale of David Bourland, who, in the mid 1960s, wrote an essay proposing that all forms of the verb 'to be' should be removed from the English language.

Burkeman gives some examples of how this would affect certain parts of the English Canon. 'To be or not to be...' would be revamped as 'To live or not to live, I ask this question' and 'The Lord is my shepherd' would be rewritten as 'The Lord functions as my shepherd'. Hmmmm.

It did, however, get me thinking about this idea to help me with writing and editing.

I sometimes get a problem with a sentence or a paragraph that I know isn't right, but I can't for the life of me work out why. By rephrasing it without using 'to be', I can't always see the problem, but I can get a different perspective and give myself more options with description.

'He is', 'she is' etc, can all be changed to make writing less stilted and more varied.

The removal of 'to be' from our own language can also help us to focus on what is true about ourselves. Instead of saying 'I am a failure', we would have to say, 'I feel like a failure', or 'I have failed at this task'.

The complete removal of 'to be' is not to be encouraged, but a more sparing use could be the lift our writing, and our own lives, need.

See you on Friday.


Lisa Shafer said...

Several languages do not have a "to be" verb at all. As I recall, Mandarin, Russian, and Bosnian fall into this category, but I could be wrong. (It is only 5:30 AM for me right now, and I'm still a bit fuzzy.)
Spanish has 2 "to be" verbs. One -- SER -- is for "to be something" or the "permanent" form. The other -- ESTAR -- is "to be some place" or the "temporary" form. They are both linking verbs (show existence and state of being rather than action) just like TO BE in English.

Nick Wilford said...

Wow, thanks very much! I look forward to reading them. :)

I'd never thought about the "to be" verb before. I see what you're saying about it being relied on too much. This is an interesting post - or should I say "this makes for an interesting post"?

Milo James Fowler said...

I win? I win? (channeling Mr. Bean) Gracias! I'll shoot you an email posthaste.

Rephrasing passive verbs is always a good idea, but I agree that we shouldn't toss out the proverbial bearded baby with the murky bath water.

Martin Willoughby said...

Lisa: Well, there's a few things I didn't know. Thankyou.

Nick: I hope you like them.

Milo: Bearded baby? That's a new one on me.

Shell Flower said...

Paying close attention to "to be" can help identify places where your writing uses a passive voice, as well. It's kind of hard to explain to some people, but just having them focus on "to be" verbs is a good start. Great tip.

Congrats to the contest winners, too.

Caitlin said...

Congratulations to the winner!

And interesting advice! I'm going to have to try this.

Martin Willoughby said...

Shell: It struck me as one of those ideas that's only obvious once it's stated.

Caitlin: It helps focus on how I describe things and actions.