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Book Reviews, Craft of Writing, Fiction, Reading, The Writer's Life

The Case of the Copula Overdose, or, Why I’ll Never Write (or Read) the Same Way Again

I reviewed a book a while back that has stayed with me for many months and has affected the way I write and read, and it’s opened my eyes to a weakness in much creative writing, even in published books. Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012) criticizes many aspects of fiction, but saves its most withering scorn for the rampant and indiscriminate use of copulas.

The Secret of Maimonides-Submission for 2-26I hear you asking, “What’s a copula? I admit I had to look it up. Webster’s definition says: “the connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition.” In most cases, this refers to a form of the word “be.” But what does that mean to us everyday writers? It means banal, didactic, often passive sentences, almost completely lacking in action or depth.

As Glover says: “A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram. Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be,’ but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting.”

He speaks of his students here, but I also see the effects of copula overdosing in many published works. Consider this excerpt from a book I intend to review:

The watchman was striking the midnight blow on his clappers as I opened the door, Fortunately, Y… was still out. My body was still trembling, but I was able to clean the vomit off the walls and floor before crawling into bed.

I see little effort or creativity in this supposedly “creative” writing. Not that the book fails completely because of it, but I’ve noticed more than a few such passages in the narrative, from an author with many publications and years of experience. But how much more work would it have taken to punch up that paragraph with better action and description? We call ourselves creative writers, after all.

You may not think this amounts to more than a nit-pick. But to me this kind of writing lacks the challenge and the engagement I’d hoped to find when I began reading the book—I find myself paying more attention to the quality of the writing than the story.

I believe focusing on details like this separates the average writer from the excellent writer. So when I made the final (I hope) edits on my historical fiction, I looked extra hard for copulas, changing them to active constructions whenever possible. Perhaps it will make a difference. Does anyone besides me care these days?

By the way, in case you didn’t notice, I made it a point not to employ any copulas in writing this blog. It took some effort to avoid falling into that web.

Addendum: One never knows what readers will find interesting. Web stats for this blog are double my usual average today. And I’m proud to say that one of my Twitter friends, Sophfronia Scott, studied under Douglas Glover at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and passed the link on to him. He responded with a very nice note. Small world.

Program notes:

My friend Dora Badger has begun what should be an excellent series of posts about independent publishers on her blog. Take a look: http://menaceandwhimsy.com/2013/02/20/the-shiny-new-devil-you-know-intro/

And next week I’ll report from Boston, at the annual AWP writers conference, with my annual look at some of the more unusual 11,000 writers in attendance. If you plan on attending, and would like to say hello, you can find me at the LA Review table.

About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "The Face Maker and Other Stories of Obsession." Former Book Review Editor at LA Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

48 thoughts on “The Case of the Copula Overdose, or, Why I’ll Never Write (or Read) the Same Way Again

  1. The copula section is worth the price of the book. It changed my life, but the benefits are mixed. As a newbie writer, I’ve taken to avoiding “was” and “had been” to such an extent that readers sometimes have trouble understanding what the heck I’m trying to say.
    I wonder if the challenge of writing in active voice has led to the trend towards writing in present tense, which can be charming in a flash piece, annoying in a novel.(Although, I read Arcadia by Lauren Groff recently, and it was so well written that I got used to the present tense.)

    Posted by michellemorouse | March 2, 2013, 2:18 PM
    • I know exactly how you feel. Ever since I read the book I find myself trying to revise nearly every use of “be,” and then wondering if I’ve lost the reader in the process. This leads to ridiculous internal debates over whether I should write “the man was wearing a coat” or “the man wore a coat”… was he in the act of wearing the coat for a period of time, or did he wear it and now it’s over? Too much to think about to write effectively.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 2:59 PM
  2. This is absolutely not a nitpick, Joe. I don’t mind if I see these in a first draft, but beyond that? These are the kinds of things that make my mind go numb, and it’s surprising that books can get through a pile of drafts and past a decent editor with these spiders in tact.

    Another thing that makes me nuts: the word “There” as the first word of a sentence. Yikes!

    Posted by Teri | March 2, 2013, 2:18 PM
    • I admit I had some very bad habits when I first started writing fiction. Sometimes I’ll take a look at an old story that never made it to publication, thinking a few revisions might salvage it. Then I’ll see all the phrases like “he was trying to be able to be” and “she was happy that she was doing something about it,” and close the file forever.

      Makes me almost wish I’d had some grammar obsessed nuns in grade school, smacking my knuckles with rulers to teach me the right way. Would have saved a lot of time later in life.

      And you’re so right about editors who don’t even realize this kind of writing is flawed. It’s hard to review books for their plot and theme when I can’t get past the weak prose.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 3:10 PM
    • There is something to that.

      Posted by Jon Zech | March 2, 2013, 6:19 PM
  3. This is certainly something to keep an eye on during rewriting as it can make prose feel a little pedestrian. In the end, for me, the overall feel of the writing is what’s important and getting that right is less an exercise in counting commas and more impressionistic. It would be possible, for example, to remove every single use of the verb ‘to be’ in a manuscript and still write a bad novel. One more thing to bear in mind though!

    Posted by chrishillauthor | March 2, 2013, 2:29 PM
    • Oh yes, that’s a big concern too. I’ve seen plenty of novels that are grammatically correct, but are still boring. Someday I hope to have internalized the copula filter so I no longer have to think about it, and then I can focus completely on making the book interesting to readers.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 3:14 PM
  4. Great, informative post! After reading it through, I returned to the sample passage and tried to rework the paragraph in my mind, using only active verbs. Fantastic tip that makes me wonder if I’m guilty of overusing copulas.

    Posted by Gwen | March 2, 2013, 2:50 PM
    • I do a lot of that too, when I encounter copula-laden writing in a book. How could this be made better? I may make that an exercise in the next class I teach. Copulitis is one of the most common afflictions of the beginning writer.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 3:18 PM
  5. Just to note: having a copula is not always exactly the same as having a passive construction. A passive construction is one in which the subject is having something done to it rather than doing something, whereas it’s possible to have a copula in an active construction (and as you note from the attack of the copula spiders–which I notice have visited me in the first part of this note, at least!–it can happen far too often). One thing I’ve noticed–bad imitators of Hemingway and the tough-guy school often use too many copulas.

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 2, 2013, 3:25 PM
    • Yes, that’s right, but in both cases the writing could probably be made better. But I would never hold using copulas against someone commenting on my blog, just like I never worry about overdoing copulas when writing dialog–most people use them in almost every sentence, and I do try to make my dialog sound realistic. It’s like taking a break from the more difficult aspects of writing.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 8:49 PM
  6. I’m afraid of writing anything here, now, were I to be squashed.

    *Dang* it….

    Posted by fpdorchak | March 2, 2013, 3:52 PM
  7. I thought simple past tense was to state something that had occured, without implication of anything more.
    Other forms often seem to imply something more, something in addition to or to follow. They need a preposition somewhere along the line.
    “He had been waiting for an hour.” This begs an, “Until” or “Before” or “So that.” If that remains unresolved, the anticipation just hangs there.
    “There was a house on the corner.” Statement of fact without a promise or threat of more to come. No tension.
    “There had been a house on the corner.” This begs explanation, clarification. We wait for the answer to, What happened to the house?” Tension.
    Both equally useful, but different.
    But I’m many, many years from grammar classes, and I didn’t pay much attention anyway.

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 2, 2013, 5:02 PM
    • I vaguely remember diagramming sentences in English classes and thinking I would never, ever have a use for such a ridiculous exercise. Maybe I was wrong. I think I’ll look a little deeper into this copula conundrum.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 9:00 PM
  8. I recently read that Franzen’s big bugaboo is comma-then, as in: She lit a Camel Light, then dragged deeply. He says, and I quote: “If you use comma-then like this frequently in the early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther unless I’m forced to…. Comma-then is a disease specific to modern prose narrative with lots of action verbs. Sentences infected with it are almost always found in the company of other short, declarative sentences.”

    He calls it Fiction Workshop English.

    *ouch*

    Posted by Teri | March 2, 2013, 9:20 PM
    • I read that too. I think it was part of a Guardian article posted online. I read it, and then I immediately put it into practice, and then I stopped using comma-then.

      Posted by jpon | March 2, 2013, 9:24 PM
      • Hahaha! (but seriously, I’m so paranoid now every time I use “comma-then” or “and then” in any way.)

        Posted by Teri | March 3, 2013, 12:04 AM
  9. Interesting post, a trap every writer falls into now and again. I tried eliminating this copula demons from my works and it’s taking a heck of a time!

    Posted by Seyi sandra | March 3, 2013, 12:03 AM
    • Me too. I read Glover’s book a year ago and I am still working on getting the excess copulas out of my stories. Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by jpon | March 3, 2013, 12:17 AM
  10. You seem to be treating every use of “to be” as a copula, but not all of them are. You can’t just say equate every instance of “to be” with a copula. E.g. your examples “was obscured”, “was etched”, “had been surprised” are simply passive voice (as noted by another commenter). And your examples “was arranging”, “were playing”, “was striking” are continuous/imperfect. If you removed “to be”, you’d have “arranged” and “played” and “struck”, which actually changes the meaning. Those are both examples of using “to be” as an auxiliary verb, e.g. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copula_%28linguistics%29 which is not a copula usage.

    Posted by Russ | March 3, 2013, 12:05 PM
    • I admit I have a long way to go in understanding exactly when the use of a form of “to be” is a copula. I appreciate the help.

      Posted by jpon | March 3, 2013, 3:47 PM
  11. Sorry I’m late to this wonderful post. I just returned from my book event in NOLA. Small world indeed. I stayed in the city with a friend who also graduated from the MFA program in Vermont and knows Sophfronia Scott. I only know (and adore) her from Facebook and Twitter. Wish I were going to AWP. Have fun. And tell Soph hello for me.
    Btw, I agree Glover’s spider theory is brilliant and a great tool for writers.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 3, 2013, 3:11 PM
    • Looks like on the internet there are less than 6 degrees of separation. I’ve never met Sophfronia either, but if our paths happen to cross I’ll say hello for you.

      Posted by jpon | March 3, 2013, 3:49 PM
  12. I had read the post, looked at the comments, studied the copula, then I started writing.

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 3, 2013, 3:36 PM
  13. When I was in high school, I took two years of independent study honors English. My teacher told me that when I graduated from high school, I was welcome to use what he called “the verb of being” as much as I wanted, but that I must not use it in any essay I wrote for him. I wrote an average of 1 1/2 essays a week for those two years, and carefully eschewed the use of that verb (I figured if he could call it “the verb of being”, I could eschew its use).

    At first, this lead to awkward sentences, but in the end, it made me a much better writer. To this day, I always pause when I write a form of the verb “to be” and consider whether it’s the best choice or a case of me just being lazy. It’s sometimes the right choice, in which case I use it, but I never use it unthinkingly, except perhaps in comments on blog posts.

    By the way, I graduated from high school in 1977.

    Posted by sorcharei | March 3, 2013, 4:27 PM
    • Wish I’d had an English teacher like that. My writing would probably be in much better shape today. But as they say, recognizing the problem is the first step towards solving it.

      I find I’m becoming a little too attuned to uses of “to be,” whether they’re copulas or not. It often slows me down, but maybe that’s a good thing. In my writing I try to replace them with more active or descriptive verbs. And when I see too many of them in something I’m reading, I start thinking of how the writer might have reworded the sentence.

      Posted by jpon | March 3, 2013, 4:37 PM
  14. Great tool to add to my arsenal – suspect it will change my approach to first-draft edits. Like other tools, it’s not the only one, nor should it dictate removal of every instance of TO BE. There’s a reason it’s the strongest verb in most (western) languages. But an excellent viewpoint – thanks!

    Posted by ML Hart (@MsMartha_writer) | March 3, 2013, 4:44 PM
  15. I’m completely paranoid now. (Shit, adverb alert.)

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 3, 2013, 8:23 PM
    • Me too. It’s one of those things that’s best internalized, so that it only pops up when one overdoes the copulas.

      Posted by jpon | March 3, 2013, 10:09 PM
  16. Joe, reading this post made me feel the way I do when watching Downton Abbey–a mix of interest and exasperation. Partly, I know that my frustration comes out of a sense of guilt. I might be a fellow addict. But at the same time, the fact that Mr. Glover reserves his most “withering scorn” for this sin of writing, of all the things in fiction he could pick, seems academic in the worst sense of the word.

    No doubt he has a point, but don’t you think the real issue here has to do with lazy writing? Or maybe, better to say, unintentional writing. As a teacher, I try to deal with root causes, not symptoms. The copula addiction is the latter. It’s good that he points this symptom out, but is it really the thing to get most ticked about when it comes to fiction? Anyone who reads The NewYorker could think of a few other problems: lack of plot, navel-gazing narrators, small-boar writing that lacks ideas, etc.

    I’ve had a couple instructors who have blanch at the sight of some similar tick–English grad students who go off on their hatred of adverbs or their need for the subjunctive to hold the day. Again, these are fine points, but I don’t know if they make or break writing. These ticks, if the writer is unaware (copula used here on purpose), can be annoying for the reader, yes. But I’m troubled by the repeated tick because it seems as more as if the writer is not in control of what she is doing.

    I should also admit here that I find the “requirement” for active voice something in American English to be more cultural and less an ingredient to good writing–just as a side point. I had enough grad student instructors red pencil me out its use, but considering that other languages, hell, the British use it, I wonder if our aversion to PV isn’t just something of a cultural bias, and if it is, then let’s not speak of good writing, which is objective. Let us speak of taste.

    I think what I’m trying to get at is that writing, in the end, should be intentional. The passive voice, the copula, the adverb, all have their place. And individuals like Mr. Glover, though more than welcome to twist and turn red-faced, is not really helping writers to be better, which I imagine is his goal.

    OK, now I’m going to write my own copula-laden fiction now, and I’m going try to forget the stuffiness of early 20th Century England and early 21st Century lit crit.

    Thanks for sharing.

    -g

    Posted by the circular runner | March 4, 2013, 7:00 PM
    • I think you’ve hit it perfectly, Gabe. It’s lazy writing. It’s writers who don’t care to make the effort to find a better, more descriptive way to say something. I hesitate to let them slide with the term “unintentional,” though, since isn’t revision part of the writing process? Maybe weak language can pass in a first draft, but that’s why they’re called drafts–because we’re supposed to make them better. I’m often amazed at the puny vocabularies employed by some writers–and that’s lazy too because they could easily spend some time improving that aspect of their craft.

      Love what you say about the stories in The New Yorker too. Interestingly that’s about the only part of the magazine I don’t read. I simply can no longer stand the incredibly smug, bourgeois attitude of their fiction.

      Posted by jpon | March 4, 2013, 10:31 PM
  17. Muriel Rukeyser: Verbs are the engines of sentences.

    Posted by Elizabeth Knight | March 4, 2013, 8:53 PM
  18. I’m VERY glad now, having read this post, of the pressured writing I do. Without knowing the term “copula”, this was still one of my main creative concerns. Leading my reader tightly, with clarity, but skipping verbosity.
    Thank you VERY much, Joe.

    Posted by doordirt4creations | March 5, 2013, 11:40 PM
  19. The “‘s” in your second paragraph is a copula (irony: “What’s a copula?”). Also, not every use of “to be” is a copula; in the passive, it’s actually an auxiliary verb, which is different.

    Posted by Paul Hartzer | March 5, 2013, 11:45 PM
    • You’re right on both counts. Unfortunately I didn’t pay very close attention in my high school and college English classes. I was actually more of a math/science guy for a long time. The result is that I write mostly the way some people learn music–by ear. If it sounds right I usually go with it, but ask me to recite the rule and I’m lost.

      Posted by jpon | March 6, 2013, 1:40 AM
  20. Apologies for the duplicate, if it is one (WordPress is being flaky):

    Ironically, a copula slipped through in “What’s a copula?” in your second paragraph.

    Posted by Paul Hartzer | March 5, 2013, 11:47 PM
  21. I enjoyed the post. I can’t say I was familiar with the Copula, other than Francis Ford and his daughter, of course.

    I’m working on preparing another chunk of 10,000 words to send off to my editor. Was there a sense of trepidation when I began? Yes, but as I cruised through the first few thousand words it seems I hadn’t done much Copulaing.

    It is definitely another thing to keep in mind.

    The comment left above, by the writer who was told NEVER to use forms of “to be” by their teacher, did give me some pause. Like the adverb, this seems like a rule that could be pushed to extremes. I don’t care for the adverb, either, but my novels (50-100K words) I will use 3 – 5 adverbs and don’t feel it means I will burn in hell.

    It is the same with the passive voice. I understand the point of avoiding it (it is to be avoided), but sometimes the cadence and rhythm is better with the passive voice, and then I use it.

    Have I mastered the rules of grammar? No, not even close. As I learn, though, it is always with an eye towards understanding the why of it.

    I suspect that anything done slavishly, without understanding, can produce crap, too.

    Posted by Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg) | March 6, 2013, 12:59 AM
    • Many thanks. And great line about Francis Ford.

      I tend to agree with your assessment of rules and how they’re enforced. My strategy for dealing with these is to try and internalize the concept, so that I create a sort of writing filter through which my prose must pass before I consider it acceptable. That way I can control the bad habits without obsessing over them. The copula filter still needs some work, though.

      Sounds like you have your copula situation well under control. I’ll have to check out your novels.

      Posted by jpon | March 6, 2013, 1:49 AM
  22. This takes me back to my high school English teacher days, when I’d circle to be’s (and cans, as in “I could see her” or “I can imagine”) ad nauseum, angrily, uselessly. I wish I knew this term then– copula spider! I love that! Drawing a (smiley faced?) spider might have taken a bit of the sting our of the process (for both the students and myself).

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 8, 2013, 4:52 AM
    • Sounds like your students used enough “cans” to start their own cannery. Teaching English to high school students sounds like a form of purgatory. But maybe a session titled “Copulas and Cans” might have gotten them to pay closer attention.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2013, 10:39 AM
  23. Joe,

    Read your blog with great interest. I teach a high school creative writing class and my students find my correction of their pervasive use of ‘to be’ irritating. (I’m being polite.) I am going to show them your article and bring them the actual book so they will see it is not just some weird obsession of mine.

    Posted by Annie Boochever | March 10, 2013, 5:19 AM
    • Sounds like a great strategy. Hopefully it will help them realize the importance of clearer and more concise writing–no matter what career field they ultimately choose, but especially if they want to write creatively.

      Posted by jpon | March 10, 2013, 10:23 AM

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