What’s The Big Deal About Was?
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?
Available Now in Digital, Paperback, and Audio
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.”