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*Quick* grammar question.

Sentence: "Frederick Douglass proves himself a master of rhetoric"
Does it make sense that I took out "to be" after "himself" in this sentence?
(Original: "Frederick Douglass proves himself to be a master of rhetoric")


How does one "prove" oneself?
The sounds somewhat like purple prose.
I agree. I would like it more concise and direct: "Frederick Douglass proves that he is a master of rhetoric." Although, not sure he'd be doing this in the present tense nowadays... :)
I have few problems "proved himself" - yes, I agree with Bristol P. in that the past tense is called for here - but "proved himself" suggests that he had someone that he needed to prove himself to.  How about "showed himself to be" or "became known as" or 
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7 Answers

Frederick Douglass was a master of rhetoric.

I think it makes perfect sense to leave out "to be," and I actually prefer it without that phrase. It is more concise. And while you could choose a different verb, as others have suggested, this sentence is fine just as it is.

I agree with Susan C.  A sentence basically requires a subject (Douglass) and verb (to be).  These simple elements ensure a clear delivery of your intent in any statement.  While your omission can be defended, I think you will keep your audience more engaged with the use of clear and direct language. 
Also, the word rhetoric means, "the art of discourse."  Therefore, my recommendations for your sentence are the following:  "Frederick Douglass proved himself to be a master of rhetoric; Frederick Douglass proved himself to be a master rhetorician."
For economy of language, the 'to be' can be removed and the remaining sentence still retains the concise meaning. Also, it contains all the essential elements of a sentence. In rhetorical language, the word 'proves,' used in the present tense, is used as a stronger form of the word 'shows.' Therefore, I would have to agree that it is better to state:
"Frederick Douglass proves himself a master of rhetoric."
The main verb of your sentence is the third person singular present tense of prove, which belongs to a class of verbs in English that are followed by a direct object (often a reflexive pronoun like himself in your example) along with an object complement, i.e., a noun phrase that corefers to the direct object; that is, in your sentence an equivalence is being made between himself and a master of rhetoric. This is probably why the to-infinitive of the copular verb be (i.e., to be) often occurs between the direct object and the object complement in that the semantics of prove X (to be) Y entails that X is Y. In other words, Douglass, the referent of himself, is (third person singular present tense of be) a master of rhetoric, as asserted by some fact or agent that "proves" this.
Other verbs that can be used in this same way as prove are consider, show, believe and think. And I agree that to be can be omitted from Frederick Douglass proves himself to be a master of rhetoric with no perceptible change of meaning but a desirable gain in the conciseness and economy of the sentence (which I could use a little of there, i.e., I just mean the sentence has fewer unnecessary words) while remaining grammatically correct.
That's the grammatical viewpoint, now rhetorically there are some separate issues:
  • I agree with Mark M. that maybe prove is too strong a verb here, though it's a bit perilous to judge outside the context of your sentence. Presumably, since you included the tag "English Literature" in posting your question, you're discussing one of Douglass's many writings (I assume also one of his non-fiction essays or autobiographies--I confess I am ignorant of any imaginative literature he may have written) and you're trying to argue that his rhetorical style in the work illustrates his "mastery." If so, then I think along with Mark that it might be a stretch to declare that ontologically and with certainty a writer's rhetoric "proves" anything. Instead, perhaps a less definitive verb like demonstrates, shows or illustrates would be better.
  • And if you are discussing a work by Douglass that is freely available and readable by others in the present time, I would say that present tense proves is appropriate--if not even mandatory--even though the author himself is deceased.
I would like it better if you kept  the "to be" words in the original.
No, it does not make sense.  You extracted an essential component of the sentence.