What’s The Big Deal About Was?

What’s The Big Deal About Was?
Terry Odell

When I finished my first novel, the only paths to publication were vanity presses and agents. When I found my first, last, and only agent, she returned my first chapters with every use of the word was circled in red. Everyone said “Was is passive writing. Don’t use it.” I might not have been an English major, but I knew enough to know that “was” is the past tense of “is” and there’s nothing wrong with writing in the past tense. Now, it might not be the strongest of words, and when paired with an “ing” verb, might not be the most exciting way to express something, but it’s not passive. (I wrote about the dangers of using ‘ing’ construction in another post.)

Passive voice is something else again. Consider The dog bit the boy versus the boy was bitten by the dog. The former is active voice, the latter is passive voice. (I know someone out there is saying, “But what about The dog was bitten by the boy? That’s passive voice, but unexpected, and therefore more interesting.)

The following are passages from books written by best-selling authors. I wonder if their editors circled all their “was” usages in red—and “were” as well. Yes, there are  a couple of passive voice sentences in there. Their editors didn’t cut them, either.

The body was crumpled beside a Dumpster midway down the alley, but my view was blocked by a woman in a T-shirt and shorts, and two men in dark sport coats. The woman’s T-shirt was fresh and white and made her stand out in the dingy alley as if she were on fire. The older suit was a thick man with shabby hair, and the younger detective was a tall, spike-straight guy with a pinched face.  The Forgotten Man, Robert Crais

The shooter was trained, the shooter was a killing machine, but he was still human. Now, breathing hard, he tasted blood in his mouth like you might after a tough run; and all the time, he was looking for lights, he was looking for an alarm, a cry in the dark.  Heat Lightning, John Sandford.

Sheriff Goodman was into his thirtieth hour without sleep. He was dazed and groggy and barely upright. But he kept on going. No reason to believe the abductors had stayed in the vicinity, but he had his guys out checking any and all vacant buildings, barns, huts, shelters, and empty houses. He himself was supplementing their efforts by covering the places they weren’t getting to. He had found nothing. They had found nothing. Radio traffic was full of tired and resigned negativity.  A Wanted Man, Lee Child

The general public was for the most part under the impression that the gang wars that gripped most of South L.A. and claimed victims every night of the week came down to a  Bloods versus Crips battle for supremacy and control of the streets. But the reality was that the rivalries between subsets of the same gang were some of the most violent in the city and largely responsible for the weekly body counts. The Rolling 60s and 7-Treys were at the top of that list. Both Crips sets operated under kill-on-sight protocols and the score was routinely noted in the neighborhood graffiti. A RIP list was used to memorialize homies lost in the endless battle, while a lineup of names under a 187 heading was a hit list, a record of kills. The Black Box, Michael Connelly.

Now, if you want to know a usage that bugs me, it’s using “start” where it’s not really needed. “The phone started to ring in Bob’s pocket.” What’s wrong with “The phone rang in Bob’s pocket?”

Or, “He started to walk away.” Unless he turns around and comes back, why not “He walked away.”?

What about you TKZers? Any “rules” you disagree with? Words or usages that bug you?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now in Digital, Paperback, and Audio
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

57 thoughts on “What’s The Big Deal About Was?

  1. ❖ Any “rules” you disagree with?
    ❦ Don’t use adverbs. This has never been an absolute except in the minds of a few “experts.” It’s true that you should avoid an adverb if there’s a good action verb you can use, instead. “He ran swiftly down the street” is not wrong, but it’s better to say “He tore down the street.” But some verbs have no faster or more urgent equivalent. “He quickly balanced himself on the chair to observe the office across the street” will have to do.

    ❖ Words or usages that bug you?
    ❦ Number One has to be “preventative.” This presumes there’s such a word as preventation. There ain’t. The word is preventive. A close second is the awful “orientate” where orient is a perfectly good verb. Someday, people (probably academics) will doubtless be using ‘orientationization.”
    ❖ Past participle adjectives are dying out. I hear this sort of thing a dozen times a day: “He hit Jake with a broke stick.”

    • Thanks, JG – orientate is a peeve of mine, too.
      I also humbly disagree with a Big Name Author who wanted things to be literal, so he said, “You can’t say ‘John jumped into the car’ because it’s an impossible action.”

    • I think Stephen King is a stickler about this. In his (very good) book, “On Writing,” I seem to remember him hating the use of adverbs. I’m with you though, I think they have their place if not overused. Sometimes it makes the writing sound off or too robotic if they’re not used, too.

  2. If I may, you overlooked the classic opening:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and so on another 8 times before the period… (I hadda look it up…🙄)

    And where would country music be without that three letter word?

    “l was drunk, the night my mama, got out of prison…”

    Now, where was I…

    • George, you get an A++ for making my day! Two reasons:

      1) When anyone quotes that particular line from a Tale of Two Cities, it automatically makes me think of the highly quotable original Star Trek, in a scene with Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
      Kirk (holding his antique hard cover copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” far out from him to read as we…ahem…older folks do) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” glances at his friend “Message, Spock?”

      Spock: (in his usual implacable manner): “None that I am conscious of, except of course, Happy Birthday. Surely, the best of times.”
      (not that I’ve watched that movie a million times or anything….)

      2) You can’t go wrong when you start your day singing that classic David Allan Coe song. Always loved the explanation given in the song for adding that verse. 😎

  3. Michael Connelly is pretty fond of “start”. I notice them every time but he’s one of my favourite authors and I finish every book of his. I guess it’s just my writer’s brain looking for ways to improve my own writing.

  4. One thing that I’ve been realizing the past few months is that you can’t purely “show” emotion. That’s because a lot of emotions look the same. A blink isn’t strong enough. Are you blinking out of surprise? Confusion? Annoyance? Disbelief? At least half the time, you need to spell things out and name the thing.

    • I agree, Azali, and there’s also the POV issue if someone’s noticed an expression. They have to be interpreting it, and they can be wrong. As I said in my last post, there’s nothing wrong with a little telling when it gets the job done efficiently.

  5. Another ‘start’ usage which drives me bonkers is swapping it for said. “Well, listen Jake,” he started.

  6. Interesting post, Terry.

    The words that catch my attention the most are the adverbs tacked on a verb that already specifies what the adverb repeats, ex. turn around, sat down, etc.

    Have a great day.

  7. Two bugs-mes:

    a / an: a historic not an historic. As an author of historical fiction (among other things), this always grates. It’s: an author of a historical novel. Vowels and consonants, folks. What’s so hard about this?

    was / were (subjunctive): Paul Simon got it wrong with “I wish I was homeward bound.” No, it should be: “I wish I were homeward bound.” It’s always sounded wrong to me because it’s contrary to fact. And when I sing in the shower, I change it. Take that, Mr. Big Shot Paul.

  8. Terry, the late, great Montana mystery author James Crumley first made me aware of the dreaded “was” in a workshop. He instructed us to rewrite all of our sentences w/o using “was.” For newer writers, it was a good exercise b/c it forced us to choose more active verbs and sentence structures. But some of the rewritten examples sounded pretty awkward. Still, it was a good lesson in mindfulness about active and passive.

    “Started to” and “began to” bug me also. However, some regional expressions are too colorful not to keep, such as: I was fixin’ to whup Junior upside the head.

    • You get a pass for regional expressions, Debbie. What bugs me is making blanket “rules.” Don’t tell me I can’t do something!

  9. I think editors and agents have their pet issues and they latch onto them with a red pen vengeance, which is understandable. But your agent was simply wrong. I’m glad you don’t have that agent anymore, Terry.

    I once sat in on a lecture by an editor who was speaking on the topic of “Why Every Author Needs An Editor.” One of her slides had the word “your” instead of the correct “you’re.” It was depressing. 🙂

  10. Pet peeves: use of “than” when “from” is obviously correct. The use of “invite” as a noun drives me up a wall. Merriam-Webster aside, I’m old school. Invite is a verb! We’re too lazy to pronounce the full word: invitation. Perhaps my biggest issue with grammar is hearing “Where are you at?” I learned in third grade not to end sentences with a preposition. That aside, I maintain “at” is redundant.

    • Totally agree on that usage of ‘at’. I’ll accept it in dialogue if that’s the voice of the speaker. Language is ever-changing (Google is a verb), but for those of us who’ve been around awhile, it’s a tough transition. I’m never going to accept alright as a word.

  11. Good post, Terry!

    Rules have always bugged me, ever since my Momma told me I had to make my bed every morning. 🙂 There, got that outta the way. However, I do try to give writing rules a cursory glance prior to sending a MS to my editor.

    My pet peeve these days is the apostrophe. It seems that everyone and his/her brother inserts apostrophe’s willy-nilly. I see them everywhere. They scream at me, “Get me out of here! I don’t belong here . . . ”

    I wish I could be like Master Yoda and just wave them away.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in this group. 🙂

  12. That agent sounds like a real piece of work, Terry. Years ago, I overheard a young writer tell another inexperienced writer to delete all cases of “was” from her manuscript. Ridiculous advice, and not at all helpful. As you pointed out, “was” doesn’t automatically mean passive voice. “Started” drives me crazy, too. Either the character moves or they don’t.

    • I should have parted company with her a lot sooner than I did, but I didn’t have the fortitude to start looking for another one.

  13. Great article, Terry! I read it with a mix of relief and camaraderie as I struggle with using no-no words, too. The worst is when all the rules start bouncing around in one’s head during the first draft phase.

    I’m sure my novels are riddled with things other writers would find annoying. Thankfully, I’m writing for readers and not other writers. Readers rarely (never?) seem to notice these things. 🙂

    • Readers don’t read the same way writers do, JP, for sure. But since writers also read, I try to put the best work possible out there.

  14. Good grief…was is always “passive?” That editor is nuts. Worse, dangerous.

    • I have no idea whether she’s still in business. I’ve seen a LOT of “advice for writers” lists, sites, etc., that say “was” is passive.

  15. I’ve written some convoluted sentences in the past trying to avoid the word “was.” Sometimes “was” *is* exactly what is called for 🙂

    It took me years to get over seeing “impact” used as a verb instead of affect. So many politicians as well as managers where I worked asking, “how will this impact us?” But, language does change, so I eventually adjusted 🙂

    • I’m willing to accept some words more than others. As I said above, though, I don’t think alright will ever make my list. Dictionary.com gives both noun and verb definitions for impact, including this one:
      “to have an impact or effect: Increased demand will impact on sales.”

  16. Every time I hear someone say something like, “That’s a reasonable ask,” it makes me want to strangulation them.

  17. Thanks, Terry. I hear this blanket rule all the time, and it’s crazy. I watch more for “there was” or “it was.” Most of the time, those can be tweaked. “There was a bug on the counter…” isn’t as vibrant as “A bug skipped across the counter…”

    Trying to rewrite the “was” in your examples would just stress me out.

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