Personal Stories

Not To Be

During the first meeting of my freshman writing class, the professor begged the class to never use the verb ‘to be’. She claimed forms of ‘to be’ allow writers to speak using a passive voice rather than an active one, which causes redundancy and inhibits clarity. To elaborate on her point, look carefully at two sentences: “Harry is a good friend,” versus “Harry supports his friends by listening closely when they speak.” She argued that readers get a clearer understanding of Harry’s friendship from the second sentence than the first.

The professor banned ‘to be’ verbs from our writing that term. She wouldn’t accept any paper including any form of the verb, anywhere. Like a dutiful student, I cut ‘to be’ verbs from all my papers, groaning internally at the inconveniences this presented.

Now, with the term behind me and winter break before me, I have begun writing for fun again. Writing has always brought me pleasure; it allows me to explore and organize my thoughts. As I began writing last week I noticed that I rarely use any forms of ‘to be’ anymore. I found this curious and spent days reflecting on why that rule stuck.

After thinking for a week, I argue that we should eliminate “to be” verbs universally—from our writing, from our speech, and especially from our thoughts.

Hear me out. I do understand the impossibility of this task. But, let me at least outline for you the costs of declaring things “to be” or “not to be.”

As a young woman newly—and proudly—in recovery from anorexia, I look at my past and see where I and others declared I was something. I’d say, “I am stupid. I am fat. I am worthless.” They’d say, “She is smart. She is skinny. She is perfect.” Later, they’d say, “She is sick. She is anorexic.”

These statements may seem innocuous, but I ask you to think about the words you use to define yourself. When you say, “I am [blank],” you lock yourself in a box. You say that [blank] is what you are, and you omit the millions of other things that make you, you.

When you have an eating disorder, it pulls you away from your passions until the disorder occupies the entirety of your mind. Part of what perpetuated my eating disorder was that I related so much of the disorder to my identity. As the eating disorder took over, it kicked out every other part of me. As I grew sicker and sicker, I was no longer a student or an athlete or a friend. I was just anorexic.

In addition to stripping you of your facets, eating disorders reverse parts of your judgement; you view health as a weakness and illness as a prize. You take pride statements like, “You are ill.” You love when people say, “Wow, you’re so skinny.” You get perverse satisfaction out of concern like, “You are killing yourself, and I am worried about you.” 

My recovery process has involved a lot of discovering who I am without an eating disorder. I gave a lot of thought to who I am now versus who I was then. I spent the first few months wandering around, lost, trying to find new things by which to define myself. I tried wholesome, healthy things: volunteer, daughter, sister, tutor. But, even with these new and improved labels, I felt trapped in a similar rut: how can I say I am something without letting that overrule every other part of me?

I have decided that I cannot lock myself into boxes. I will not hide behind labels, and I argue that we do just so when we define people using ‘to be’ verbs. Instead, I work every day on replacing those declarations. The disordered thoughts still linger at times in my mind, but I change their language now: instead of thinking I am fat, I think I feel fat at the moment. At the doctor’s office, I remind myself that my body weighs [x] pounds instead of I am [x] pounds. And, when speaking, I replace, “I was anorexic,” with, “I used to struggle with anorexia.” It’s a small adjustment but one that’s had an impact on how I view myself.

This nuance of language might sound like it has very little impact on the world, but the entire field of linguistic relativity would beg to differ. Linguistic relativity argues that our speech defines our experience, and I cannot agree more.

In the case of eating disorders, the statements of “I am” and “you are” and “she is” perpetuate illness. They keep us locked in the thought that This illness is all I am and without it, I am nothing.

Across the board, I believe that statements declaring something to be one way or another lock us in boxes. When you think through the lens of this is this, and that is that, you put blinders on yourself and block your peripheral vision of the big picture.

I implore you, just as my writing professor implored me in the beginning of September, to rethink how often you use the verb ‘to be.’ Start with becoming more aware of it; reflect on how replacing it could feel different. I bet you’ll find other ways of speaking and thinking that make you feel freer.


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