‘To Be’ or not ‘To Be’


How the Milton English department does not do enough justice to ‘to be’ verbs

Every student who’s ever taken a Milton English class knows that their writing should never rely on ‘to be’ verbs. Our English teachers often say that these types of verbs bore the reader or lack importance. However, these verbs can quite effectively convey information that lives outside the physical realm. In other words, information that doesn’t involve physical movement or physical change but does involve theoretical concepts cooperates well with linking verbs. Since we frequently work with abstract concepts—in almost all classes, but especially English—we can present these concepts in an even stronger fashion by using ‘to be’ verbs. For example, saying “he walked to the store” communicates physical information, something physically exists. On the other hand, saying “he is a pop star” reflects an aspect of the subject, the man, and not a physical action that he does. Although poor writing often stems from a dependence on ‘to be’ verbs, these verbs can be more compatible with abstract concepts than traditional action verbs.

For action verbs, it’s all in the name: action verbs traditionally portray real people or objects doing actions. Although English teachers often tell students to use ‘abstract words’ in their theses and overall arguments, action verbs were made for non-abstract action. The ‘abstract words’ do not show action in any way. Instead, these types of words define the character on whom the thesis is based. In addition, action verbs, in communicating physical action, tend to only be used in factual ideas. For example, one cannot argue in an essay that the wolf blows down the first two houses, as this fact is directly stated in the story. Most authors make the physical actions factual but leave the abstract concepts up to interpretation. In this way, the usage of abstract concepts fits better in an essay with ‘to be’ verbs, while action verbs must stick to non-debatable, real events.

Since these abstract concepts don’t do actions in the realm of thought, ‘to be’ verbs can represent them without their doing any action. Furthermore, the concepts are often attached to a prominent character, and, in defining a character, one must use linking verbs—a set of verbs that includes ‘to be verbs’—to associate the concept with that character. Indeed, one can never use a form of the verb ‘to be’ to portray action. Yes, this rule can be bad when a full essay sees no action, but, in a way, it can also be good; if one uses linking verbs in his claims, he can be confident that his claim is not plot-based and factual, but is instead interpretive and abstract.

The Milton English department is correct in telling students to avoid linking verbs in much of their writing, but these verbs can be beneficial when using abstract, theoretical concepts. While action verbs work better in the physical realm of the world, linking verbs work better in the theoretical realm. Action verbs are meant for portraying action, and oftentimes, that action is purely factual. ‘To be’ verbs, however, can attach concepts to characters without any action necessary and communicate the change of a character over time. Although ‘to be’ verbs have become the sworn enemy of the English department, such verbs can still provide an abundance of benefits when working with things beyond the physical world.

Milton Paper