Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Defense of WAS

by Marsha Ward

Lately, I've been listening to a lot of writers get hyper about the word was: how its usage in a novel surely marks the author as an amateur; how terrible it must be to have more than, say, 60 examples of was in a full-length novel; how we should all do a search in our manuscripts and root out the evil word was.

I demur.

No, I didn't misspell demure, meaning quiet and modest; shy, which many people think I am. Little do they know! I mean demur, to raise objection; take exception; object.

Yes, I demur. And now I'll digress a bit, too.

When I was in school, past tense had two forms: preterite (it can be spelled without the last e) and imperfect. Preterite is the simple past tense, like I walked. Imperfect has a helping verb, yes, often it happens to be the infamous WAS: I was walking. It could even be I used to walk.

Now that grammar is much more fancy than when I was young, preterite is called simply past tense and imperfect has been split into two, maybe three camps, depending on which source you cite. These are my buddy the imperfect, past progressive, and past continuous. Some people call past progressive progressive past. That's scholars for you, always changing things to get their name out there. The most commonly cited camp of the old imperfect is past progressive, but I like "imperfect," so I'll go with that in my discussion.

Preterite or past tense is used to express actions that took place in the past. Bang! The action was completed. Done. Finished.

Imperfect denotes a past tense with an imperfect aspect. The action is incomplete. It's ongoing in the past, or happened regularly or continuously until it stopped. This might be expressed with a verb ending in 'ing': Mary was laboring for fourteen hours. Trust me, that's continuous and progressive, both.

Sometimes you use both preterite and imperfect in the same sentence: As I was walking in the park this morning, I saw a red-winged blackbird. Saw, was, was, saw, hmmmm.

I studied Spanish in high school and really learned it when I served a mission for the LDS Church in South America. You might say I was learning Spanish the whole time I was there. (Aha! Imperfect!) Spanish makes no apologies for using both past tenses. They each have their use.

Okay, back to why I demur about using the word was. Writers get told to use strong, active verbs to express their action. Yes. That is the best policy, and very handy to keep out passive voice. Most writers take this to mean they always have to use preterite tense.

However . . . when an action is not complete, when it is ongoing, you just gotta use the imperfect tense, which could mean you gotta use was. I maintain that was is misunderstood, misused, and misappreciated, er, unappreciated. All the popular novelists use it. I say you can too! Within reason. Also, with reason. Knowing why you're using it, and all that.

Agree or disagree? Tell me your side of this issue.

5 comments:

  1. This is a good piece, Marsha. I haven't given much thought, heretofore, to the use of "was," but now, I have been sensitized. I was working on my book is very close to the woman who was laboring for 14 hours and isn't quite through yet. Hopefully, when I finish, I'll have a beautiful baby, too. Thanks, Rene

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  2. Thanks, Marsha, for 'capping' this lively discussion.

    I'd forgotten the word 'preterite' because in public school I felt no need to learn grammar rules. My parents were very careful to use 'proper' wording, so if it sounded right to me, it nearly always WAS right. By the time I finally got back to college, the term 'preterite' had been dropped, though the usage is unchanged.

    When our ANWA attention WAS directed to the need for more active verbs, I really appreciated the alert. Action really does add spice. It surprised me how often I use the passive WAS when I could be more explicit. (For a good example, see my stilted sentence just above, which I almost decided to change.)

    To me, the discussion added a kind of thoughtful noteriety to the lack of power of this almost invisible word--a word which simply, calmly and quietly points direction. (Does that make sense?)

    Because of ANWA, I feel more aware. I'm more likely to notice each time I use WAS, wonder if a more active sentence structure could give better impact, and either improve the sentence with action verbs, or knowingly and confidently keep the WAS.

    Thanks to all of you who have added a facet to this 'diamond' of a word.

    All in all, it's great to see varied sides of any issue and, as my wise father taught me, there are always at least two.

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  3. Marsha,
    I enjoyed this piece! I, too, have been thinking lately that "was" is getting a bad rap. Of course, I agree that "active" is best, but sometimes I feel that "was" has been turned into such a pariah, that writers practically become contortionists trying to avoid it's use at all costs. I am currently rereading book 6 in the Harry Potter series, and I've noticed that JKR sprinkles "was"-es liberally through her books. Do I stop, roll my eyes, exclaim, "Passive voice!" and quit reading? No way! Would I even notice, but for all the "was" bashing in conversations with other writers? Not likely! Do I think we should, as writers, be on our guard about too much passive writing in our own work? Of course I do! But I don't think we need to become paranoid about the use of "was" either. After all, "was" is not a four letter word. ;-)
    Joyce

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  4. Ho-ray Marsha. What a thoughtful and well-written essay. An ode to WAS.

    Reading the word pretarit took me back to first year Latin. That was such a great class for learning English grammar.

    I'm glad, too, for 'permission' to use was. I've been feeling so guilty, and, in fact, mentally castigating Dickens for his 'It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.' I think I'll let him have that.

    Anna, as usual your response is a wonderful reflection on the essay.

    We really have a deep bench in ANWA, don't we?

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  5. Marsha,
    Thank you for clarifying the difference between passive voice and past tense usages of was. I have tried to explain it a few times, but once someone gets an idea, like "don't use was," it's hard to overcome it.

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