QUESTION: Why do we use the verb "to be," in its various conjugations, so much?
ANSWER: The verb "to be" is a crutch. The word "is" is horribly overused. But you immediately sense the problem. It is natural to use "is-speak." The only thing that is worse than is-speak is was-speak. As it were.Ronald Reagan, speaking of the Iran-Contra hijinks, uttered the immortal line, "Mistakes were made." In that instance "were" is not just a verbal crutch but a smoke screen, an intentionally obscurantist verb designed to hide the perpetrator of the mistakes.
To understand why we use "to be" so much, you have to think about what happens when we speak or write. We don't simply deliver information. Rather, we use metaphors. A metaphor is a kind of verbal equation, and "is" or "am" or "are" is the equals sign.
To take the simplest example, you routinely greet someone with the bland line, "How's life?" and you get the answer, "I'm hangin' in there." The word "hangin' " is, one hopes, metaphorical; if the person wanted to be more specific (and avoid is-speak) he or she might answer, "I awoke this morning to find a grotesque carbuncle protruding from my chin."
In its worst manifestations, "to be" is overly general and prejudicial. You end up with lines like, "They are all hoodlums in that neighborhood." Or, to quote our personal motto within the Why bunker, "Why should I talk to you when you're just you and I'm me?"
Wouldn't you know it, there is an entire movement, many decades old, to eradicate "to be" from the language. The movement, recently described in The Atlantic Monthly, is called "general semantics," and one of its tenets is that "to be" is dangerous. As general semanticist Emory Menefee put it in the journal "ETC.," "These little verbs (or their equivalent in other languages) may have contributed to two millennia of intellectual sloth and Aristotelian darkness."
Instead, say these semanticists, people should use a language called "E-Prime," which is English minus the verb "to be." They are deadly serious.
"What we're trying to do is do some fine tuning, making language a little more accurate, and less ambiguously represent what we're trying to say," says Paul Dennithorne Johnston, executive director of the International Society For General Semantics, who writes in E-Prime better than he speaks it. "If you say, `I am a reporter,' what about all the other things you do?"
(From now on, we will say, "I am a reporter and bowling fanatic.")
There are dissenters within the general semantics community.
"The verb `to be' in its less pejorative forms is, in my opinion, a useful way of condensing a large amount of information," says Menefee. "If I say the pencil is green, most of us have no difficulty agreeing with that."
But still, he says, "The hardcore E-Primer believes that if you don't do away with all of the verb forms of `to be,' you haven't achieved the Nirvana of E-Prime."
A few of these folks are actually fluent in E-Prime. One, E.W. Kellogg III, says he thinks in E-Prime.
"I even dream in E-Prime," he told us.
In a 20-minute interview he spoke at normal speed, with great articulation, and never used any form of the verb "to be." He said that anyone who uses "is" elevates his or her own subjective opinion to the godlike status of objective fact. He would never say, "That is a great restaurant," because it might be a steak house and his listener could be a vegetarian.
But what if we asked him who that fellow is, standing over there? Would he answer, "That is Dave"? No, he said, he'd just say, "Dave." Or, "I'd like you to meet Dave."
Yes, it's painful to contemplate.
It may be true that "to be" leads us into temptation, toward the conversion of fact and nuance into abstraction and generalization. But some of us like abstraction and generalization.
Frankly we agree with what Hamlet said to Descartes: "To be, I think, therefore I am not to be."
The mail room is again swamped. We'll never catch up. The questions seem so hard! Like, Margaretta S. of Roanoke, Va., asks, "Why can't there be other planets way way out in infinite space, like Earth with all the elements necessary to support life?"
Dear Marge: There can be. There probably are. Look up the "Drake Equation" in a reference book to calculate the odds. The main argument against humanlike extraterrestrial intelligence is that they haven't invaded earth and seized control of the White House. (So far as we know.)