‘To Be’ or Not ‘to Be’?

So I had that conversation with my first-year composition class the other day—you know, the one about all the things you “should never do” in an essay, like use second-person pronouns (whoops) or begin a sentence with “but” or end one with a preposition.

I’ve come to expect some version of this conversation every semester. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time trying to disabuse students of such ill-conceived notions and get them to focus, instead, on what they can do in an essay. But I’m always amused at how the list of alleged cardinal sins in writing keeps growing.

One that has apparently been added in the last few years is “never use linking verbs,” or forms of “to be.” (Whoops, again.)

On one level, I understand why some of my students’ previous teachers have told them that. I agree that overreliance on linking verbs tends to weaken writing. Most sentences benefit from stronger, more-specific verbs. But is it realistic to expect someone to get through an entire essay without ever using a linking verb? Obviously, I can’t.

More to the point, has complete avoidance of linking verbs somehow become one of the new standards of “good” writing?

Not really. Not if some of our best contemporary writers are any indication.

Consider Malcolm Gladwell, a former staffer at The New Yorker and The Washington Post and author of three New York Times best sellers. Gladwell is widely appreciated for his readability and conversational style, and he has a rare gift for making complex ideas accessible. If he’s not a one of our best writers, who is?

He’s also an essayist, which makes him especially relevant to this conversation, eliminating the “Well, you can get away with that in fiction” argument.

Here is an excerpt from Outliers: The Story of Success, one of Gladwell’s best-known works (and, I might add, a fascinating read):

“For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do—the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

That seven-sentence paragraph contains, by my count, seven forms of “to be”—an average of one per sentence, although a couple of sentences have two and a couple have none. And, lest you think this is an isolated example—that I cherry-picked a passage in order to support my thesis—consider that on another page chosen entirely at random (page 150), I counted 14 linking verbs in 16 sentences.

Clearly, Malcolm Gladwell does not think it a crime to use linking verbs when he needs them in order to get his point across in a clear, concise, and readable way. And that leaves me wondering why we, or our students, consider it a crime.

After all, writing isn’t mathematics, with hard and fast rules. The only reasonable standard for what constitutes “good writing” is what today’s good writers actually do. If we’re teaching our composition students anything other than that, then we’re teaching something that is hopelessly antiquated, ridiculously elitist, severely limiting, or all of the above.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Silenceofnight.]

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