To Be Clear

Ironically enough, a few weeks after writing a blog post defending the use of linking verbs, I was taken to task in another post for—you guessed it—using linking verbs, or forms of “to be.”

In “What Makes a Good Leader?” I argued that faculty members don’t necessarily mind being led; they just want to be led well. Here’s the sentence with which one reader took issue: “Being led is one thing, but we don’t want to be dictated to, we don’t want to be treated like wayward children, and we don’t want to be sold a used car.”

“How many forms of the verb ‘to be’ does one sentence need?” the reader demanded to know. “Wasn’t it William Zinsser who taught that verbs are the wheels of writing, and that they turn slowly when writers clutter sentences with ‘be’ verbs?”

OK, let’s get something out of the way. I’ve read Zinsser’s On Writing Well a couple of times. Liked it a lot. I’ve also read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. And Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” And William Safire. And Stephen King’s On Writing. Heck, like most writers, I’ve read everything about writing I could get my hands on, trying to find the secret. (Turns out there isn’t one.)

So I pretty much know all the “rules.” For the most part, I think they’re pretty good rules, even when they’re not really rules. But my very, very favorite rule is Orwell’s sixth: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

So back to the offending sentence. True, it contains five forms of “to be.” I agree: Generally speaking, that’s a bad idea. It also employs the passive voice and ends an independent clause with a preposition—two other ostensible violations of “the rules.”

But what are our options, in this case? Writers usually prefer the active voice because it clarifies meaning and eliminates unnecessary words—including, often, forms of “to be.” In this case, I think the meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear, but can we eliminate some words? Let’s try, using the active voice:

“Faculty members don’t mind someone leading them, but they don’t want anyone dictating to them, they don’t want anyone treating them like wayward children, and they don’t want someone to sell them a used car.”

Hmmm. That’s actually 35 words, as opposed to 32 in the original sentence. Moreover, if we consider context, I wasn’t simply talking about faculty members in the abstract; I was including myself among their ranks, using the first person. To retain that important (to me) element, we’d have to revise the sentence further:

“As faculty members, we don’t mind someone leading us, but we don’t want anyone dictating to us, we don’t want anyone treating us like wayward children, and we don’t want someone to sell us a used car.”

OK, that’s better, in that it’s more along the lines of what I was actually trying to say. Just one problem: Now we’re up to 37 words. The sentence also strikes me as, well, not barbarous, maybe, but at least a bit unwieldy.

It’s actually pretty close, by the way, to the sentence I started with, in my first draft. I played around with it and ended up changing it to its current form because I did think it was unwieldy, I suspected I could shorten it, and I decided the passive voice actually worked better in this case.

Yes, I agree with Zinsser (and Orwell, and others) that the passive voice and excessive use of “to be” are usually adulterants that weaken sentences. But not always. Each sentence has to be judged individually, on its own merits. For me, as a writer, the primary questions always are: “Have I said something worth saying? Have I said it as well as I can?”

So thanks to all of you who offer me writing tips. I do appreciate them, and I always try to pay attention and learn from them, even when they’re given in a snarky, noncollegial, or sanctimonious manner.

I just want readers to know that I don’t dash off these blog posts or columns in half an hour. I spend a great deal of time working on each sentence, trying to get it just right. The fact that I rarely achieve “just right” makes me, I suspect, much like everyone else.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Guudmorning!]

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