Glahn’s Law

Some years ago I took a course in journalism from Kindred Spirit editor Sandi Glahn. On the first day of class she established, to the shock and horror of the students, a rule I’ll refer to as Glahn’s Law. It’s simple.

Glahn’s Law: No Be Verbs

In all our writing for class we were permitted two “be” verbs per page. Any more than that and we lost—oh, I don’t remember—a finger or something.

At first I thought she was crazy. After all, “be” verbs are everywhere. Passive sentences are written with them. They are employed in stating facts of all kinds. They are, arguably, the most common verbs in English. Is, are, am, was, were, will be, would be, should be, could be—are all “be” verbs. Not counting that last sentence, this post has already used seven of them. Did they hurt you? No, me neither. So why did Sandi deplore them?

I thought she was crazy, but she was the boss, and there was nothing to lose by taking up her challenge. So I programmed a Word macro to help me count the number of “be” verbs on each page I wrote. As I wrote, I hunted down “be” verbs with a toothpick, like a mother hunts lice.

By the end of the semester the mere sight of a “be” verb would give me the Clockwork Oranges. But on the last day of class Sandi released us from Glahn’s Law, authorizing us to use them again. As I emerged blinking into the glare of unconstrained writing liberty, I realized that my time under Glahn’s Law had taught me something crucial about how and how not to write.

Here’s the fundamental, practical fact: “Be” verbs clog up your writing. They slow it down and make it harder to understand.

Consider the following two sentences.

  1. General Motors is a manufacturer of cars.
  2. General Motors makes cars.

Why would you say the first when you could say the second? Or this:

  1. She was the victor after ten rounds.
  2. She won after ten rounds.

Don’t you prefer the second sentence? The difference here is a “be” verb versus a strong, active verb.

“Be” verbs talk about the state of something: what it is, its nature, its attributes. Consequently, whenever you use a “be” verb you end up talking in abstractions. Any toddler can watch a boy playing soccer and say, “He runs.” It takes an older, more sophisticated mind to say, “He is quick.”

Active verbs like “make,” “win,” and “run” talk about what things do. They talk about what we see rather than what we think. “The boat floats”—there it is, we can see it floating. “The boat is buoyant”—means the same thing, but conveys the meaning through an abstract concept. The active verb—the showing rather than the abstraction—is better.

“Be” verbs talk about what things are. Active verbs talk about what things do. Whenever possible you want to talk about what things do. Why is this?

As I labored under the tyranny of Glahn’s Law, I began to understand why do is better than are. In our hearts, human beings think almost purely in terms of action. When we were babies and the foundations of our observing and thinking were formed, all we knew were the facts of what we saw in front of us. We saw father’s eyes narrow, his eyebrows pull together, his mustache bend downward, and we knew we were headed for a spanking. We didn’t think, “He is frowning.” We didn’t think, “He is angry.” We experienced the concrete action we saw in front of us in a direct and primal way. At a fundamental level, human beings deal in terms of action.

The higher-level notions of state, attribute, nature, and existence only come to us as we grow older. They form a separate and, in some sense, artificial layer over the top of those primal, active observations. And it’s this higher-level, abstract way of thinking that we convey when we use “be” verbs.

What I discovered under Glahn’s Law is that it’s better to talk about doing than being. You should prefer “do” to “be” whenever possible, because then your writing will tap into the deepest and truest part of your readers’ minds. Make your readers see things happening and they will discover the abstractions. Tell them abstractions and they’ll skate over the surface of your writing without really making contact. They may skate right off the page.

I don’t obey Glahn’s Law anymore, but through it I learned a new law, and this I live by.

Corollary to Glahn’s Law: Make every “be” verb pay its keep.

“Be” verbs aren’t evil, just unregenerate. Use them, but make sure you know that you’re using them and why you’re using them. Make them pay their keep.