The problem with ‘be’ verbs

‘Avoid “be” verbs’ is one of those pieces of copywriting advice that’s impossible to follow (this sentence failed to). It’s a bit like ‘avoid passives’.

In the passage in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ where George Orwell instructs writers to avoid passives, he employs several passive constructions – in fact quite outrageously bad constructions by today’s standards: ‘In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active’.

But of course this is often excellent advice.

The same applies to ‘be’ verbs. This advice to avoid them is particularly useful if you’re trying to work out why a passage you’ve just written reads so sluggishly.

I’m talking about passages like this:

There are a number of standard statistical techniques available for incorporating measurement error. It is clear that these are capable of being used in the majority of contexts; however they are not always appropriate.

Notice how the passage is infected with a certain drowsiness. It speaks at a distance. It doesn’t address you, the reader. Why? Here lie the problems:

‘There are a number…’

‘It is clear…’

‘They are not always…’

These verbs lack energy. They don’t do anything. And they make the sentence long-winded.

What is the real meaning of ‘There are a number of standard statistical techniques available for incorporating measurement error’? We can rephrase it as: ‘Many standard statistical techniques exist which incorporate measurement error’.

But let’s look closer – these statistical techniques don’t just exist. They have jobs. They work hard. And what they do is deal with measurement error. So why not say something like:

Many standard statistical techniques tackle measurement error.

It’s shorter and it cuts straight to the chase. We’re on the move. We’re reaching out,  grasping the statistical problems and solving them. So if we reshape the whole passage and power it up with some strong verbs it could instead read:

Many standard statistical techniques tackle measurement error, and you can use them in most contexts. But watch out: they’ll sometimes confuse your calculations.

Now that passage powers forward. It drags you with it. You understand immediately what it’s telling you. And it ripples with energy – certainly in comparison with what it was.

So if you have a lifeless paragraph lying in front of you, check out the verbs. See if you can deliberately and consciously pick some strong alternatives.

Strong verbs charge up your writing.

(I have Steven Pinker to thank for the example above, and many other neat lessons on language.)