To Be (Copula)

The to be verb extremely common in English, but it can be difficult to identify as a verb for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s not as apparent as an action verb (compare “he is” to “he jumped”), and (2) because it takes so many different forms, as seen below (including contractions):

  • is (’s)
  • am (’m)
  • are (’re)
  • were (’re)
  • was
  • being
  • been
  • be

The verb to be express the state of being itself, so it can be called a state-of-being verb, but it’s also called a linking verb since it binds a description back to the subject, such as the following examples:

  • He is happy.
  • I am lost.
  • They’re loud today.
  • We were tired after the hike.
  • Class was long.

Linguists call any language’s to be verb its copula, which is Latin for “bind.” That’s another way of calling it a linking verb.


Eliminating and Replacing To Be

Although to be is the most common verb in English and is extremely useful (you can even see it used in this sentence), eliminating or replacing it can often make your writing more precise. That is because the words you choose instead are likely to be more specific or are likely to add more information. Example:

Using to be:

My parents were angry with me.


Options for eliminating and replacing to be:

  1. My parents grew angry with me.
  2. My parents felt angry with me.
  3. My parents yelled at me and kicked me out of the house.

In option 1, the word “grew” adds the suggestion that the anger did not used to be there and came about through some process of behavior. In option 2, the word “felt” emphasizes a more temporary emotional state, as if the parents will feel otherwise later or perhaps are more emotional than they should be. Option 3 takes advantage of the more precise words replacing to be and thereby uses the strategy of specificity: getting rid of the abstraction “angry” and replacing it with particular actions that can be seen or heard. See more information in the section Specificity.



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