The verb "To be" ("I am," "I was," "I have been," etc.) is the most protean of the English language, constantly changing in form (the word protean's namesake, the Greek sea god Proteus, could change form in an instant--lion, wild boar, snake, tree, running stream).Thus protean means "versatile," and has the positive connotations of flexibility and adaptability. You'd think writers would find its versatility useful. Yes and no. Search Google for "why not use to-be verbs" and you'll see such articles as "How to Eliminate 'To-Be' Verbs," "Avoid Unnecessary 'to be' Verbs in Writing," and "Not to be: Removing be verbs from your writing."
I'm a "show-me" learner. The first time a fellow writer pointed out the number of to-be verbs in my work, I thought "So?"
Well, "show-me" is in fact the key to improving your writing, a specific version of the "show, don't tell" rule we've all heard. For example, "This cherry pie tastes delicious" is more descriptive than "This cherry pie is delicious." Another example from Gail Radley: to improve "His failure to make the goal was unfortunate," try "Unfortunately, he failed to make the goal."
For a quick and easy way to get a feel for this process, go to Aztekera's "To Be" Verbs Analyzer, where you can paste an entire document and receive a list of sentences containing all the to-be verbs.
I tried it with a flash memoir piece written years ago, "Bread and Butter," picked at random from my Autobiography Passed Through the Sieve of Maya. The result? "54.5% of your sentences have to-be verbs." That doesn't sound good!
Below I've placed in bold the to-be verbs identified by the Aztekera tool. Be my guest: see how you might improve this piece with alternative verbs that "show" vs. "tell."
Bread and Butter
Young couples used to say "Bread and Butter" if separated by an obstacle when walking together, to keep something from coming between them. This is based on the difficulty of separating butter from bread once spread.
My mother, Ruth, still has an old-fashioned beaded bag my father, Clovis, gave her for high school graduation, and I'm struck by how like her it is: small, pretty, many colorful pieces forming the whole, smooth to the touch but with attitude. I imagine my father fell in love instantly. They were fourteen years old when they met, and neither time nor distance ever separated them in spirit.
Ruth's father, Lake Starkey, was a physician, her mother, Mary Bosworth Starkey, a descendant of early English settlers. Clovis Ritter was the rough-cut son of immigrant German stock--his mother, Ida, a short, fat, bossy sort and his father, C.H., a tall, skinny, quiet man, her Jack Sprat counterpart.
I don't know how my maternal grandparents viewed this bright, farm-grown young man, because they died in a car crash before I was born. I can guess they hoped their middle daughter would find a better catch if they moved her away from La Feria, Texas--population 1,594.
Ruth tried to follow her parents' wish that she go to college in Chicago, where her aunt and uncle lived. Once there, however, she schemed to move closer to Texas A&M, where Clovis was studying agriculture. She went to three different colleges in as many years and finally--after her third year away--they were married, with fifty dollars between them.
My father, enforcer of his own rules, scared me when I was growing up. Determined to have his way, he'd paint himself into a corner where to say yes would be to give in, a loss of face he couldn't tolerate. Mom, though, saw through his tough exterior, and would act as go-between--placating me without challenging his decisions.
She has never liked conflict. Even now, at age 102, when we're out together if I walk on the other side of a post in the sidewalk she'll say, "Bread and Butter!" and insist I say it, too.
My parents were not without arguments, however.
Mom and I wear the same size shoe, and on one visit I brought her a pair of discount store stilettos, just for fun. She pranced around in them for Dad, expecting something flirty, I guess. Instead he gave her a dour look and said, "You're not going anywhere with me in those shoes."Mom wept, I was furious. When she asked me what she could do, I said, "LEAVE the son-of-a-bitch!"That was out of the question, of course. Until he died at age 69, whenever I visited and walked into a room where they were sitting, I'd find them whispering, Mom on Dad's lap, her arm protectively around him.