Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Defense of WAS

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.


  1. Hi Marsha!!

    I agree that "was" has its place, definitely. There are times when it must be used. But when it's overdone, then you've got problems right here in River City! My manuscripts would sometimes have up to twelve uses of the word on each page, and I was passive beyond belief. As I've learned to avoid "was," it's made my writing a lot more active and exciting.

    So I don't think we should get rid of it altogether -- it has wonderful uses. But it can be overdone, that's a fact!

  2. Anonymous11:47 PM

    Hi Aunt Marsha!

    I loved the glimpse into your personality! Your defense of "was" is impressive and worthwhile.



I welcome your comments.

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