Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Defense of WAS

by Marsha Ward 

[This post is reprinted from a post published in the Writer in the Pines Blog on June 17, 2007. The misguided cautions back then against using was are still around today.]

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 fancier 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. [Sorry, I almost digressed again--really far afield. I apologize.]

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, and using it not always leads to the dreaded passive voice. All the popular novelists use was. 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.

9 comments:

  1. Exacttly. Creating a sentence like "Sally had obtained 12 years of age" sounds pretentious at best. "Sally was 12" is much better.

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  2. Thank you Marsha! I've been trying to explain "was" in the true passive sense: She was pushed by Sally, and the person I "was" explaining it to, just "wasn't" getting it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Betsy. [grinning]

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  3. Great post! Thank you for your great instruction. hugs~

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    1. Thanks for coming and reading it, Kari, and for commenting.

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  4. Whew! Best thing I've read concerning issues with "was". Thank you!!

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    1. Thanks for the great compliment, Pamela! I appreciate it.

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  5. I'm laughing only because I'm re reading a novel that is overly sprinkled with "was" and in no way detracts from its story.

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