Several decades ago, I remember a humorous but insightful story or article about the verb "to be" in English, referring to it as the "deity form" if I remember correctly. I suspect it was on National Public Radio. It encouraged, in a tongue-in-cheek way, the use of more active verbs than is/was/will be/are/were/will be/be under many circumstances. The term deity form suggested that many uses of the verb to be seemed like inappropriate God-like assertions about the world.

For example, the sentence "The sky is blue" might be reworded as "The sky appears blue" to refer to an observation, or "The sky remains blue" to emphasize the aspect of time. Various other verbs could clarify other meanings.

Does anyone remember this story or have a reference to it?

Is this general advice about avoiding overuse of the verb to be discussed elsewhere, without the "deity form" reference?

I remembered this while reading an interesting debate about the active voice vs. the passive voice in scientific writing.

  • 2
    The E-prime movement encourages us to find more specific and accurate substitutes for to be in as many contexts as possible. I don't remember any references to a so-called "deity form", but that's where I'd start my search. – Dan Bron Apr 6 '15 at 1:30

Thanks to @Marius Hancu and @Dan Bron, I modified my previous web searches and found what I was looking for: E-Prime, aka "English Prime": the English language without the verb "to be". D. David Bourland, Jr. described it in a 1965 essay entitled A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime.

As presented in Wikipedia:

E-prime does not allow the conjugations of to be—be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being— the archaic forms of to be (e.g. art, wast, wert), or the contractions of to be—'m, 's, 're (e.g. I'm, he's, she's, they're).

Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing. For example, the sentence "the film was good" could not be expressed under the rules of E-Prime, and the speaker might instead say "I liked the film" or "the film made me laugh". The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker's experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

See more at Working with E-Prime: Some Practical Notes by Kellogg and Bourland. E.g.:

E-Prime automatically eliminates the "is-dependent," overdefining of situations in which we confuse one aspect, or point of view, of an experience with a much more complex totality.... This overdefining occurs chiefly in sentences using the "is of identity" (e .g ., "John is a scientist") and the "is of predication" (e.g ., "The leaf is green").... E-Prime can also enhance creativity in problem solving, by transforming premature judgment statements such as "There is no solution to this problem" into more strictly accurate versions such as "I don't see how to solve this problem (yet)"

We see the misuse and overuse of the verb "to be" by English speakers as a kind of linguistic addiction. It allows us to play God using the omniscient "Deity mode" of speech, as when we say, "That is the truth.' It allows even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things. Its overuse allows one to communicate sloppily without unduly taxing the brain by trying to come up with more appropriate verbs.

Now I want to find useful tools for highlighting my own uses of the Deity mode and helping me switch to alternatives.

  • I notice the first sentence of this answer contains the word 'was'. Maybe you should start by removing that! ;-) – chasly - supports Monica Sep 22 '15 at 22:46
  • @chaslyfromUK Thanks for pointing that out :) Note that "was looking for" represents an "auxiliary" use of the verb "was", as clarified at E-Prime. Bourland sees that as less pernicious than the "identity" and "predication" functions of the verb "to be", though he does advocate eliminating all forms for the sake of simplicity. – nealmcb Sep 23 '15 at 19:07

__Is this general advice about avoiding overuse of the verb to be discussed elsewhere


A Grammar Book for You and I-- Oops, Me!: All the Grammar ... C. Edward Good - 2002

OVERUSE OF TO BE Let's look at a real-world example of overusing to be, one drawn from the law.

Search Google Books for:

"overuse of to be" grammar

for such examples.

  • Thanks for helping me find exactly what I was looking for! :) – nealmcb Apr 6 '15 at 15:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.