The Case of the Copula Overdose

The Secret of Maimonides-Submission for 2-26I read 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 fiction 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.

I 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 once intended 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 language? 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 edits on my historical fiction, I looked extra hard for copulas, changing them to active constructions whenever possible. I like to believe those edits resulted in some of the many positive reviews I received about the book.

Self-published writers need every advantage to achieve success in this business. Using dull, simplistic language will not help you impress readers or sell books.

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.

Joe Ponepinto
Joe Ponepinto is the founding Fiction Editor and Publisher of Tahoma Literary Review. His new novel, Mr. Neutron will be published by 7.13 Books of Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2018.

43 Responses to “The Case of the Copula Overdose

  • Tony Dulio
    ago2 years

    This is good advice and I thank you for it.

  • That book revolutionized my awareness of my writing.

  • All very good, except you misspell “ficiton”. 🙂

    The overuse of “was” is a pet peeve. I created an auto-correct in Word so that “was” and “were” change colors in my document. Easy way to immediately notice it.

    • Having “was” and “were” change colors is an excellent idea! Some writers might start seeing their manuscripts resemble Times Square at night.

      And I’m always mistyping “fiction.” I need to set up an auto correct for that.


    • Tony Dulio
      ago2 years

      Great idea

    • Jody Lebel
      ago2 years

      Love that idea. So simple yet such a time saver. Thanks!

    • Would you mind sharing how you set that up?

      • I don’t know if the comment maker will see your question, so I’ll give it a try. Here’s how to do it on a Mac; I’ll assume a PC is similar.

        1. Select the word you want to auto correct and change its color. Keep it selected.
        2. In the Tools menu pull down to AutoCorrect. The AutoCorrect dialogue box will appear with the selected word in the “Replace text as you type” box, on the “With” side. Click the “Formatted text” button and the word should be in the color you chose.
        3. On the “Replace” side, type the same word in.
        4. Click “Add” and then click “Okay” at the bottom. The dialogue box will close.
        5. Back in your Word document, type the word (make sure the color is black). When you hit the space bar, it should change color.

        • Thanks a lot, Joe. I’ll give that a try.

        • Thanks, Joe. That’s exactly how to do it. Hope that works for you, Anneli.

        • Sharon Thompson
          ago2 years

          Joe I’m not very computer savy but three times I followed (what I feel is) your exact instructions….yet when I get to the “Click the “Formatted text” button and the word should be in the color you chose” option, it is light gray in color and will not let me click on it. Can you help me? What am I doing wrong?

        • Could be you are using a different platform or version of the program. I am using Word for Mac 2011, Version 14.6.2. If you can provide your platform (PC or Mac) and version, maybe someone with a similar setup can help.

        • Sharon Thompson
          ago2 years

          Following your instructions to AutoCorrect: When I get to the “Click the “Formatted text” button and the word should be in the color you chose” option, it is light gray in color and will not let me click on it. What am I doing wrong? I am using a PC. Version: 14.0.7166.5000 (32-bit). Can anyone help?

        • Hi Sharon,

          I have a PC/MS Word 2013. When you did this, did you select the word you wanted to change? I ask because the only way I could duplicate this error was to de-select the word I wanted to change…in that case, the option to choose Formatted Text was greyed out because the system didn’t know I was trying to pick formatted vs. non-formatted text. Setting the cursor next to the word without selecting the entire word also caused the Formatted Text option to grey out.

        • Sharon Thompson
          ago2 years

          Dora appreciate your response. Though I was highlighting the word to make the color change, I was neglecting to reselect it before going to AutoCorrect for the actual text replacement. Thanks again!

        • It’s no trouble at all – I’m glad it worked!

    • What a great idea!

  • Wow I’m so guilty of this! Love the auto-correct idea! Any other concrete tips on how to stop using copulas?
    Might I find a list of synonyms for copulas somewhere?
    What technique did you use to avoid copulas in this post?

    • There really isn’t any way to make a list of synonyms for copulas. The best way to avoid them is to think in terms of action instead of being. Instead of “John was a policeman,” find a way to add some depth and specificity to that sentence. “John spent his days patrolling the city’s darkest neighborhoods.” Not to be condescending, but this is “creative” writing after all. The creative part takes time and effort. Sweat every sentence until it sings.

  • Very true! Being in the Marketing field, I’m tasked with employing strong writing techniques while being as brief as possible. It’s quite the challenge! As much as it sometimes hurts my creative spirit, it’s the nature of the beast.
    Thanks so much for your reply!

    • Putting the to be verbs in contractions still counts, lol. I’m. It’s. Sneaky buggers those copulas.

  • Great post. I’ve really been focusing on this lately. Most of the time it’s a simple change (“he watched” instead of “he was watching”), but it makes a huge difference in the strength of the writing.

  • This is a problem of poets as well; I see many many poems each month and the thing I notice is that this “dull” language is prevalent in the poems that do not stay with me for more than a few minutes. I believe that what happens is that the writer (poet) envisions or recalls some incident from the past and has the mistaken idea that the telling of that story must take place in the past too. Not so. What I tell poets whom I critique is to put the thing in present tense, leave off the plain verbs, and get the story going so that the reader imagines him/herself IN the tale. It works like a charm.

    • Thanks Carol. You also allude to another issue that plagues newer writers, which is understanding the need for revision. What’s clear imagery in the writer’s mind must be translated into precise language that resonates in the reader’s mind. That sometimes takes many rounds of revision. You can bet I’ll be writing about that in a future post.

  • Doug Glover was a teacher of mine at Vermont College way back when and he helped me enormously with both the structuring of “the novel” (conceptually) and my writing craft in general. I still keep his teachings in mind today 25 novels and numerous novellas later. One rule of thumb I apply to my self-editing process (and this goes for both my traditional and indie pub’d stuff) is to try and eliminate as many “was” sentence constructions as possible. For me anyway, this process works well at the end of the editing cycle, when the book is almost ready to go. Think of it as tightening the laces on your prose.

    • Thanks Vincent. Another of Douglas Glover’s craft teachings I like a lot is the idea of the “but” construction, which injects doubt and other possibilities into a passage, and immediately adds a touch of tension at the sentence level. I find myself using that quite a bit in my writing.

  • Haha Joe, I almost mentioned the “but sentence” lecture, but…well you get it. I wanted to stay on topic. It’s amazing how many seasoned writers are actually unaware of it. Also, the “image/repetition” lecture…

    • You said it! Glover’s writings on craft should be required in every beginning CW class. And when I teach, they are. I’m a bit surprised that he’s not considered more seriously in that realm. Personally, I would never had known of his work had I not stumbled on to his book at the Biblioasis display at a writers conference a few years ago. No one ever mentioned him in my BA or MFA studies.

  • Thanks for sharing this. Good stuff, though I find that a lot of aspiring writers go overboard with this kind of thing. “To be” is an article of the language, after all. Isolating an article of the language and trying to banish it wholesale from your work (with word searches and the like) can lead to problems, especially for inexperienced or insecure writers. I see this a lot in my students’ writing: someone has told them that they should never use the word “had,” for example, and as a result their prose feels hobbled, even disfigured. In the policeman example above, what would happen if you did something similar to every pedestrian sentence in a novel? Sometimes “was” is just the most efficient way to go.

    As a quick test, opened my copy of The Great Gatsby, almost at random, to p34, and proceeded to draw a spider diagram only slightly less multi-legged than the one featured above. Proceed with caution, is all I’m saying.

    • True, it’s easy for writers to become obsessed with eliminating copulas and forget the original purpose behind reducing their number. There are times when I’ve gone too far in that direction, and I noticed right away that the language begins to sound awkward. Verbs of being have their place, in moderation. Thanks for commenting.

  • henry simpson
    ago2 years

    Excellent point, easy to overlook when writing. It brings to mind a related problem, the repetition of particular words or phrases in a paragraph that the writer may not notice while composing but pop out on rereading. I wish I had a program that would highlight them for me.

    • Well, if you find yourself using the same word repeatedly, you can try the auto-correct trick, above. Or, do a find/replace, where the replaced word is the same but formatted to bold, a color, or whatever you choose.

  • Would love to see your non-copula version of the excerpt you referenced.

    • I wrote the original version of this blog a few years ago, so I don’t even remember where the excerpt comes from. So with due respect to the author, here goes…

      Many times it’s just a matter of altering the word order of the sentence, to make it active instead of passive.

      Here’s the original:
      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’ve tried to keep the revision as close to the original as possible:
      I opened the door to the sound of the watchman striking the midnight blow on his clappers. I did not see Y… inside. Trembling, I cleaned the vomit off the walls and floor. I crawled into bed.

      It’s relatively easy to kill the copulas in a passage like this one. To be honest, though (and recognizing that this is a tiny excerpt from a much larger work), I would change a lot more than that. To me, it seems lacking in detail and emotional depth. That’s just me, though. I’d have to see this in its original context to make a better assessment.

  • Patricia Morrison
    ago2 years

    Good thing David Bowie didn’t read this. Otherwise, “The Man Who Sold the World” would be lacking a lot of its punch.

  • I noticed (that you avoided copulas in the article itself 🙂

  • I’m not a writer, but I care about the quality of what I write, and this article intrigues me. People have criticized my writing for overuse of the passive voice, and I plead guilty to it. I think that issue is similar to, or at least related to, this construct. But the definition is a little opaque to me. One might interpret it to mean that any use of the verb “to be” constitutes a copula. You and others have noted that your article contains none. So I would ask what properties disqualify this excerpt from being a copula: “What’s a copula?” But seriously, given the meaning of the verb “to be”, wouldn’t any form of it other than infinitive qualify as producing a copula? Or is there a technical meaning to “proposition” in the definition of copula that eludes me? And conversely, and perhaps more interestingly, do other verbs produce copulas?

    • You got me with the “What’s a copula?” Never even noticed.

      As for the copula itself, think of it as a verb that links the subject of a clause to the predicate, such as “The sky was blue.” It doesn’t have to be a form of “to be,” but it usually is. Others verbs that can stand as copulas are “seem,” “become,” “taste” (The milk tastes bad) and similar. For me the key is that the linking verb essentially states an equivalency (John is tall.)

      And as several commenters have pointed out, you can’t eliminate them from writing or speech. They’re an important construct in the English language, as well as many other languages. My point was that they can be overused in writing, especially creative writing, employed when more active or descriptive verbs and phrases would do a better job.

      I probably used a dozen copulas in this response, btw.

      • Thanks very mmuch for your thoughtful reply! “Seem” and “become” are great examples, not so sure about “taste”. And with these, in my mind there remains a near equivalence to use of the passive voice – which of course opposes action, the quality being sought in this aesthetic. I’m actually even more puzzled by the rephrased definition than by the original: I thought the formal purpose of *any* verb was to link the subject and predicate…

        But I do get the point much better now. And I agree that while the construct is not something to be avoided at all costs, overuse of it tends to dull down the prose (unless your name happens to be Albert Camus)!

  • Great article, can you show us a sample re write of how it would look, sans copulas? Thanks!

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