Be-Free English
by Paul Niquette
Adapted from 101 Words I Don't Use
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.
be intr.v. 
  1. To exist in actuality; have reality or life. 
  2. To exist in a specific place; stay; reside. 
  3. To occupy a specific position. 
  4. To take place; occur. 
  5. Used as a copula linking a subject and predicate nominative, adjective, or pronoun, in such senses as (a) to equal in meaning or identity; (b) to signify; symbolize; (c) to belong to a specific class or group; (d) to have or show a specific characteristic or quality. 
  6. Used as an auxiliary verb in certain constructions as (a) with the past participle of a transitive verb to form the passive voice; (b) With the present participle of a verb to express a continuing action; (c) With the present participle or the infinitive of a verb, to express intention, obligation, or future action; (d) With the past participle with certain intransitive verbs of motion to form the perfect tense.
echnical writing competes successfully with "legalese" as the most awful form of literature.  Sentences slog along, fact after fact.  Paragraphic sludge, thick and cold, mires the mind in data and more data.  Detailed descriptions appear in viscous rivers.  Bogs of operating procedures fill pages.  References, forward and reverse, tangle and distract the hapless reader, who gropes through illustrations bereft of life.  Here and there a dreary signpost, then resumes the mental death-march, fact after fact.

Everyone in technical work has to read the stuff.  Most must write it, too.  Technology in industry, in government, in academia -- technology nam et ipsa means documentation.

What makes it so awful?  Formality, of course.  Technical writing sets the standard for dryness, inertness -- formality to the max.  Formality: rampart for the insecure, the mindless fact-monger, the flattened, humorless, literal personality.

At the microcosmic level, the real culprit is is.  And other forms of the verb to be, like are, was, and were.

 Let me illustrate.  The following passage contains nine incidents of be:

The bicycle is the most efficient means of personal transportation.  Its principal parts are wheels, frame, handlebar, saddle, pedals, cranks, sprockets, chain, and brakes.  The rider is seated upon the saddle, which is located atop the frame.

The axle of one wheel is mounted at the front of the frame on a fork.  The fork is capable of being moved about an axis from side to side.  Thus, the front wheel is used for steering by means of a handlebar, which is operated by the rider.

Technical writing sounds like that.  Notice what the writer might accomplish partly as a consequence of taking out all forms of be.
The bicycle holds primacy as the most efficient means of personal transportation.  Imagine all the places a person can go on a machine which rolls along on just a pair of wheels.  Sure, you need pedals and cranks, sprocket and chain, but you don't need gasoline.  Add a saddle and a handlebar, and nothing can stop you.  Oh, right, don't forget the brakes.

The fork, which connects the handlebar to the axle on the front wheel, makes steering possible.  Seated astride the saddle, the bicyclist operates the handlebar.  He or she turns the front wheel from side to side as needed to steer the machine along the road or bike path.

The more active style makes for better reading, perhaps you will agree.  I call it Be-Free English (BFE).  Now, I admit, the writer of that BFE version did not limit himself to the removal of the is's and are's.  Golly, for one thing, I deliberately broke a solemn rule of technical writing: Never use a personal pronoun.

Try BFE for yourself.  But do not expect an easy job of it.  Figure twice the writing effort.  If you want to write fast, let the be's fall where they may.  Glazed eyes do not cause a reader's death, only characterize it.  But if you want to write something less awful -- a document the reader will comprehend without conking out -- put Be-Free English to work for you.

ack in the fifties, fresh from the university and immediately assailed by technical writing in my first job, I began doing that.  By simply excising a few be's, I found I could develop improved diction.  With increased action, I achieved improved imagination with no loss in relevance.  The technique works on non-technical writing, too.  For the record, my first draft of the present essay began "Technical writing is awful."

Forcing myself to remove the was in a statement such as "The war was over" (sense 4d) stimulates a quest for specificity, as: "The war ended {on such-and-such a date, with the battle of so-and-so, in a stalemate, without bloodshed}."

Better no predicate at all than a mere be, sometimes.

Then too, I took a disliking to that "equal in meaning" business (sense 5a).  Nothing is truly equal in meaning (see analogy, restitution).  I learned long ago that when I do not allow statements of equivalence (with an is or a was), I find myself seeking differentiation instead, and the thought expands, the expression gains content.  Examples abound.  Rather than "Eisenhower was President," I might say "Eisenhower occupied the White House."  An ironic inaction thereby takes over the sentence, replacing existential -- hmm, inaction.  "She was his most devoted admirer," transforms to: "She admired him greatly," connoting volition and leaving whatever else "she was" for separate elaboration.

Some constructs in English require a be to -- well, to be (sense 3, 4, 5b, 5c, 6b, 6c, and 6d).  Often, save for tortured rewriting, no alternative exists.  I have found that budgeting about one or two be's per page relieves the struggle.

By the way, a be works best with a "not," as in: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  However, such a case is not exactly a refutation of my be-antipathy, since a negative formulation is not an instance of "equal in meaning."  So be-free writing is not without exceptions.

Finally, the Foremost in Awfulness: the Passive Voice (sense 6a), the polluter of formal writing.  When the Passive Voice is employed, the resulting sentence is made -- surprise! -- passive.  Today, we might say wimpish.  If you want to sound inactive, use the Passive Voice.  In technical writing or otherwise, I don't so I don't.  Of course, you cannot use the Passive Voice without a be in there somewhere.

For more than three decades now I have talked about Be-Free English to anyone who will listen and to some who had no other choice (subordinates, for example).  I taught BFE in the university and in seminars around the country as a footnote to other subjects, mostly technical, of course.  Not a well-kept secret, by any means.

More than a third of a century has gone by and I have yet to hear about BFE from anybody else.  But I haven't found a sentence that actually improves with the inclusion of a be either.

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April 12, 1993

Martin Gardner
The Skeptical Inquirer

Dear Mr. Gardner,

Please count me among your most devoted fans.  However, I apparently missed your 1952 review of Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski [founder of the General Semantics movement in the United States].  Drat that.

Some years ago, my sister Patricia, the matriarch of our family, sent me her personal copy of S and S, inscribing it, "To my beloved brother, Paul, who appears at times to stand a little to the left of sanity."  I doubt she intended to compliment me, any more than my barber, who recently said, "Your face looks like it already wore out two bodies" -- but I digress.  Several times -- and always with a visit by my sister imminent -- I have taken the volume from its shelf and probed its pages for rightness of thought.  So far, my disappointments only turn inward.  And my stand, leftward.  Until The Skeptical Inquirer arrived.  Your column ("Notes of a Fringe Watcher") on S and S set me free!  Almost.

In "E-Prime: Getting Rid of Isness," I also learned that Korzybski shared my dislike for the be-word.  So do a lot of other people, going 'way the hell back.  My lack of scholarship abounds, though: Not only had I failed to read your review of S and S and thus suffered needless annoyance under the brow of my sister, but I had blithely assumed that Be-Free English belonged to me, having never heard of E-Prime.  Give that a drat, too.

Still, I think of BFE as a creative instrument more than curative proscription, as Korzybski would have us view E-Prime.  And I continue to think of Martin Gardner as the finest science writer ever to -- well, ever to be.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Niquette