Essay about the verb “to be” below.
Aiming toward directness and precision always helps us communicate better in writing. At the same time, a lot of people seem to think the internet is hurting our ability to read and write material with depth and length. I think, on one hand, we make up for those losses in a way by fine-tuning our shortest online missives into some real stunners. (Read: Twitter! Character limits surely inspire directness.) On the other hand, I do appreciate the concern that we all write more and more like e-magazine articles. Even the most casual of Instagram captions always looks to me like someone agonized over it for variety in diction, perfect spelling or intentional misspelling of words that might not even be real, and hashtag case and formatting. The phrasing gets so canned, I wonder if there could ever be a way to study how similar your average online post looks compared to others – you know, a plagiarism test – and then look at equivalents in daily print and letters of yore. I don’t think I would be surprised to hear that one period parroted itself more than the other, or that they were equal. (Those Romantic novels can certainly wax repetitive, and I absolutely mean Jane Austen when I say that.) I might sound now like I plan on talking exclusively about social media, but I actually started thinking about this by considering how teachers treat be-verbs in elementary school writing. Reduce this topic somewhat and give me a minute to arrive, and I’m considering what writing is in this post.
I realize we shouldn’t totally ignore the people who fear we’ve returned to hieroglyphics and can’t write an original sentence to save our lives, but I don’t like to sensationalize either. Naturally, I see certain things in the web context a lot recently – education (that field I just entered from cyberspace, you know), groupthink, writing conventions, all sorts of similar things. Our online posts always have a literary voice, and to prove that I would point to the differences across platforms. There’s a way you write on Twitter, and there’s a way you write on Facebook. Beyond that, I recall one major peeve growing up: people’s voices changed on social media. I can’t quite tell how much they still do, now that almost everyone has used it for so long. I certainly acted differently online when I was twelve, but I swear, some people went from Evanescence lyrics to milennial pink laugh-cry emoji overdrive in seconds flat. The more people hopped on the wagon after MySpace, the more friends and acquaintances I saw reinvent themselves from illiterate or embarrassing to experts at pithy photo captions or political one-liners over the course of a year. I think the internet taught many of us English all over again. Now I use it every morning to help a group of Chinese kids who learned it there in the first place.
I feel like I’ve gone right back to school for an online field trip to study critical theory. Yes, the whole social media topic is actually too big and too annoying for me. It got old when I tutored sixteen thousand people through their essays about it in the CCSF Writing Lab. I must stay on topic: I started this out by thinking about be-verbs. The be-verbs grammar teachers hammer into elementary schoolers. Am is are was were be being been. (That’s all!) I work under many towering intellects who have given their lives to elementary and high school education, and they teach a whole lot of courses that try and train kids to avoid writing with so many (or maybe any) of those ubiquitous be-verbs. I often watch recordings of the online classes where they do that, which is how I fell into this literary-pedagogical swamp of unfinished thoughts I keep trying to squish together.
Why cut out be-verbs? What makes a verb weak or strong? Why show and why not tell? The only place I can start talking about this stuff is where I was schooled, in primers and phonics books on the living room couch.
I wonder sometimes if I would have loved literature so much, and been so willing to write countless papers about it, if my mom had taught me a more rigid and MLA-approved course of study. Realistically, I probably would have. I might have written in a different style from the outset, but my mom is a fantastic writer and more than anything, she passed me her enthusiasm for words (and an awe-stricken appreciation for her sizzling comebacks). Sadly, we know that no single approach to any subject, via any philosophy, works perfectly on every brain – and I think we should absolutely try to train kids within the written context where they already operate. It’s cool that we all learn differently, but we all have to adapt a little too. We need jobs, and nurturing should include realism and practicality. The fact is, my mom took a pretty loose, encouraging, pressureless tack when teaching all five of us to write and compose. All five of us are similarly trained, and all five have a different relationship with reading and writing. I think we should tell all students of all ages to find the good in their education, embrace the exercise of it, and make an effort to draw out what they can and make it their own, instead of jading themselves toward any part of the process that lacks an obvious payoff.
When I started in college I’d only written creative book reports and some technically disorganized speeches (and the short stories I undertook by myself – see!), but it didn’t take me long to shift from hating the academic essay style to understanding how it can help your thought process, and how like almost anything else it can be done well or horribly. I had professors on opposite ends of the micromanagement spectrum, which probably helped in many ways, but I think this…attitudinal edge…came from a natural love of school. Not everyone loves school, so you can only take the magic so far.
Following a strict set of conventions or instructions may seem like a slap in your muse’s face, but I can’t convince myself that it’s fair to resist structuring, or even over-structuring your writing for an assignment. What are you, writing the great American novel about corn production with ten credible sources? To borrow the classical model of education, I would argue that you have to start somewhere sensible. Somewhere is sensory: memory, experience and regurgitation. Sing, baby birds. Sing rote!
Truly, I don’t hate putting writing in a box, either a 40-character box eyeballed with the quiet critical pressure of the whole internet or a rubric full of arbitrary commands for how to earn the most grade points. I know all boxes are not equal, but I’ve come to think of that angular three-paragraph essay prompt, with its list of requirements for thesis and topic sentences and examples and elaborations and other things at which my contradicting homeschooled eyes used to contract in horror, as something else: a sonnet. Sonnets are beautiful poems, some of my favorites. Allowing for some arguments over particulars, your classic Petrarchan sonnet comes in this box: fourteen lines, octave and sestet, ABBA ABBA CDECDE, volta. Shakespeare tweaked it a little. You probably had to write one or two for school. Anyone can write a sonnet: it has rules. Then again, if I had to guess the ratio of “good” sonnets to “bad” ones, I’d probably go, around…1-500? Sonnets impress us because they all follow the same basic conventions, and that’s the exact reason why they can always be written without becoming a cliche, but it’s also why writing a clever sonnet, an interesting one, a proper sonnet with a turn and a true “conceit,” is really hard. It’s also hard to write a non-boring essay in which you must color-code every sentence for its required role in the paper. Climbing into a very small box requires double-jointedness. Climbing into a written tradition requires something T.S. Eliot identified in his essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”: the writer’s “ability to force, dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”
So, to be or not to be?
“Electricity is bad, fire is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch” - a Tumblr user I have forgotten
Maybe I find in favor of most educational methods that really try to impart something, even when we finite students would rather not use those particular means to reach those particular ends we may or may not care about. Still, I have struggled most over be-verbs. I could not give them up. Be verbs are simple. They are direct. They show entire faith in an opinion, possibly an echo of faith in the greatest cognate phrase the world has ever known: “I AM THAT I AM.” What could possibly make us want to avoid them, especially when the results of trying to are usually so terrible?
But of course, writing on this subject actually strengthened my eventual, reluctant opinion that even the practice of occasionally killing be-verbs can make us write sonnets. (Don’t laugh at me, I’m simple.) Part of the reason they can is that they can also make us write utter garbage. Picture my initial disgust with how horribly some students remove be-verbs from their sentences. Those sentences will easily slide from “brevity is the soul of wit” to “brevity can cause one to show forth their wittiness.” They can get worse than that. These mechanically edited sentences, I tell you, can be torture: more passive than anything the be-verbs ever created, less direct than my flight to Hawaii. But then, how did the above student go about it? He probably said, “This low-salaried teacher thinks a category of verbs is inherently bad, so I guess I’ll show her I can talk around them like a good little conformist. It’ll make her stupid day.” He most likely gave up and skirted the issue. He tried to translate himself instead of thinking in another lexicon. Well-written essays lacking “is” and “am” will always seem a little weird, but I’ve already seen how students can work as brilliantly in those parameters as any others.
Possibly, my respect of Is is the reason I should pay attention to it every time I write it down. Being is a grave thing, and so are all our other verb-ings. We may or may not do it well at age nine, but dislocating be-verbs into their meanings might show us the way to epistemology, and we arrogant ones, blasting our opinions into space, should certainly wonder why we’re so sure how things are every so often. Of course, we have to write full sentences to meet the full risk of excessive be-verbs, and your typical photo caption is just an artful fragment followed by a coordinating string of colored tiny pictures. Limitations on what you must and must not write can motivate and enable creativity. Confused thoughts brought me here, but to a conclusion many people understand without thinking at all. “Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string.” -Pele