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I feel that I am using the verb "to be" too much in my formal writing and hence I am trying to find a formal substitute that I can use from time to time. Could the verb "to constitute" be such a synonym?

For example, if I were to say (dumb examples, I know)...

A car is a vehicle

A car constitutes a vehicle

...would both sentences mean the same? Is = constitutes?

Other dumb examples:

The law of gravitation is a first approach to the problem

The law of gravitation constitutes a first approach to the problem

Lying is an immoral act

Lying constitutes an immoral act

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  • Have you looked up "constitute" in a dictionary? It doesn't mean "is". There are places where you can use "constitute" and it has roughly the same meaning, but if you look up the meaning of the word and substitute it into your sentences, you should be able to figure out which ones are correct.
    – gotube
    Sep 27, 2022 at 6:35
  • Yes, I have. I am aware of its various subtle meanings. The thing is that formal texts (philosophy, etc.) use "constitutes" all over the place and many times it feels like mere "is".
    – user161917
    Sep 27, 2022 at 7:03

2 Answers 2

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The final example is the only one that really works.

The verb "constitute" really means "is part of a whole". In the last example I'd understand "Lying is immoral - when you consider the act of lying in the context of a social code of behaviour". The sense is sounds rather legal. Consider the dictionary example:

His failure to act constituted a breach of duty.

Here again "constituted" means "was", but in the context of a system of law.

The other examples, I'm afraid, just sound rather silly. The verb "is" is the most common verb in English, so you should expect to use it rather a lot.

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  • Thank you. How about these dictionary definitions of "to constitute"? (i) to be or be equivalent to something, and (ii) to be something or to be considered as something. They look to me pretty much like definitions of "to be".
    – user161917
    Sep 27, 2022 at 7:07
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"Constitute" means "thing X can be considered an example of category Y", often restricted to some specific context.

A car constitutes a vehicle

So, this sentence is good grammar, but it means something like, "For our purposes, we can consider a car to be a vehicle." It's a ridiculous thing to say because a car is quit obviously a vehicle, so it doesn't require any qualification. A better example of it would be:

Legally speaking, shoes with built-in wheels constitute a vehicle.

This acknowledges that we might not normally think of a pair of shoes as a vehicle, but if there's a wheel in the sole, then it is a vehicle.

The law of gravitation constitutes a first approach to the problem

This doesn't make sense because the Law of Gravitation isn't an example of the category "first approach". "First approach" isn't even a category of action, so we can't use "constitute" with it.

Lying constitutes an immoral act

This is a good sentence because lying could be an example of an immoral act. Unlike the car example above where a car literally is a vehicle, lying isn't an immoral act by definition, so it makes sense to categorize it that way.

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