“Ain’t” ain’t a problem, but “is” generally is

As a righteous high schooler and unofficial member of the grammar police, I hated the word “ain’t.” I thought it made people sound uneducated. And why say such an ugly, marginally acceptable word when there are tons of awesome words to use instead? As an adult, I have come to realize that “ain’t” has its uses. Sometimes it just feels good. And it’s perfectly okay to use in your writing…on an extremely selective basis. Just make sure there is a valid reason for including it. For example, can you imagine if Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” were “There Isn’t Another Man”? Sometimes “ain’t” just feels right.

Now, “is” on the other hand…

I had an amazing AP English teacher named Mrs. Nacca who harped on the use of “is” in our English papers. I never understood why she was so violently opposed to that word. It’s one of the shortest, most harmless words of all time. But she would circle every “is” and “was” we wrote and demand that they be used six or fewer times per page. It's not easy to do. Even when writing this blog, I used “is” or “was” ten times. I circled back and rewrote sentences to eliminate most of them.

Years later, I finally understood her reasoning.

There are some technical reasons not to overuse “is,” but just remember that “is” is probably the most boring verb out there. Overusing it makes your writing sound flat, vanilla. Eliminating “is” alters the whole tone of your story—and makes it vibrant, alive. Sometimes you will simply be able to substitute a more exciting verb, and sometimes you will have to do some creative rearranging. Check out the difference here:

My bedroom is a place that I feel truly content.

vs.

I feel truly content in my bedroom.

The difference is extremely subtle, but the second sentence is tighter, cleaner, and more active. It also sounds a little less like an essay and a little more like you’re telling me a story.

So take a look at your essay. Highlight every “is” and “was” on the page. If you’ve used six or fewer, you’re probably in good shape. If your essay is littered with “is,” try finding more specific verbs or rearranging your sentences to eliminate “is.”

Trust me. It is the right thing to do.

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