October 29th, 2021

A Case for WAS: The Much-Maligned Passive Voice

by Kathleen Baldwin

Alas, poor WAS! Thou art cruelly misunderstood and murdered most foul by brutal editors and unknowing authors. When should you use the ruddy WAS thing and when should you toss it over a cliff? Is passive voice given a bad rap? Can it be used for good, or is it always evil?

Beware of The Deadly WAS-Wipe…

My critique partner, Carole Fowkes, a brilliant horror and mystery author, suffered a vicious WAS-Wipe from an anthology editor at a publishing house. This naïve editor sent down an edict. “Behold, Thou shalt remove every instance of WAS.” And so, my diligent friend followed instructions, and the anthology went forth WAS-less.

For several weeks Carole labored under the assumption that the enemy of all good active writing must be the dastardly verb, ‘was.’ Finally, at my wit’s end, I grabbed her by the collar and shook that nonsense out of her head. “There is a use for was! WAS was invented for a reason.”

There. I just used was in an active sentence. Never mind that it constituted both the subject and the verb.

I will not bore you with grammar.

It is my considered opinion that grammar is like knitting—no fun to watch. The problem is, if one doesn’t understand the basics of either, one can end in a dreadful tangle. (Pardon my gratuitous use of a puppy.)

Nope. No boring grammar discussion here.

Instead, let’s talk about what works and techniques to keep your sentences and stories lively and active.

Hint: Occasionally you may need to employ a WAS.

Today I had an unexpected run-in with passive voice. It happened in a scene wherein a friend, Georgie, interrupts my heroine with urgent news in the middle of the heroine’s first passionate kiss with the hero, Quentin. Take a look:

Our blissful haze of kissing explodes. Immediately I break into a run. Georgie and Quentin are following me, but that does not matter. I must race death, and at times like this I am faster than anyone might expect.

Did you spot a was?

Nope.

Yet this passage feels passive. Let’s whip out a passive-voice cleaver and chop it to pieces. Put on your seat belts. Prepare for a messy ride through some hard-core sentence-butchery.

First up…

Pesky Ponderous Prepositions

There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language. Some prepositions (not all) slow pacing and produce passivity. Here’s a list of twenty that tend to slow pacing. I’ve bolded the ten peskiest: above, along, around, as, at, before, behind, beside, between, by, from, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with, and within.

Stay alert to pesky little prepositions. Gauge their sneaky behavior in your sentences. Are they producing ‘be’ verbs? Do they slow your syntax flow? Did you want to slow it down?

In my sample sentence, we collide smack-dab into “of kissing.” That pesky preposition, of, slams on the brakes right before we get to the delightfully active word, explodes. On a side note, why didn’t I show that crucial emotional explosion? I want the reader to experience that sensation of pleasure bursting apart, right? Yes, I do. Let’s try to fix that, too.

The reader already observed them kissing in the preceding paragraph. So, we can rewrite it like this:

Our blissful haze explodes into a million glittering shards.

That’s better. More active and visual. Which brings us to the next problem…

Beastly Bothersome Beetle-like Ings

I confess—I am the queen of ings.

Those dratted little devils! Ings are shifty little critters that often force you to add a ‘be’ verb, thereby convoluting a delightfully active verb into a languorous slug-like beetle.

Two ings haunt my example: kissing and following. Note: the new addition of glittering does not require a ‘be’ verb or a preposition to make it glitter in the example. Therefore, I grant permission for glittering to twirl across this sentence’s stage.

We got rid of the kissing ing already. Hooray! Not that it was much of a problem, but there’s definitely an issue with the next line: “Georgie and Quentin are following me, but that does not matter.” Following requires the be verb are in order to make sense. So we need to change following to follow.  

While we’re at it, let’s remove ‘but that does not matter.’

Here’s why:

Delving into the heroine’s thoughts during this urgent moment slows my curious readers. It compels them to ask, “Why does it not matter? Doesn’t she care if they are following her?” Yes, of course, she cares, but her race against death is more important.

We can change it to:

Georgie and Quentin follow hard on my heels, but I must race death.

The Terrible Trap of Taking Time to Tell Time

Discussing time is almost always a passive act. I cringe, sheep-faced and scarlet-cheeked, that I wrote the next line. Go ahead laugh with loud guffaws. I deserve it.

“And at times like this, I am faster than one might expect.”

Really? Is she? My heroine stopped to make an aside to my reader about how “at times like this, she is faster than her frail figure might lead one to suspect.” Ha! At times like this, my dear, I think you ought to keep running as fast as possible.

The preposition ‘at’ ought to have given me pause, but two primary elements drag this line into a tarpit:

1. The generality of the statement weakens impact and dispels urgency. The reader may question, “At all times like this?” One may wonder how often do times like this occur in her life? Is this a daily incident?

2. Referencing time slows the reader and elicits a more reflective feel. Sometimes this is exactly what an author wants. Other times, as in my sample passage, it doesn’t work. (LOL, yes, I just used sometimes and other times. Here it works.)

Let’s take a look at the full edit:

Our blissful haze explodes into a million glittering shards. I break into a run. Georgie and Quentin follow hard on my heels, but I must race death. And that makes me faster than anyone expects.

Okay. That’s good enough for now. I’m sure I’ll tweak it more later. Let’s jump back to the problem of editors and authors thinking our poor innocent WAS is guilty of verboten passive poison.

Brilliant Fiction Writers Know When to Use WAS

Use WAS to focus attention on the action, or another element, instead of the actor.

The best way to illustrate this concept is with examples. Or perhaps I should say… Examples illustrate this concept the best way.

[Note the preposition and passive be verb in that first sentence. Neither is wrong. They simply focus the reader differently. The first sentence emphasizes the best way to illustrate the concept. The second almost buries the word concept and lets the reader know examples are coming. Which one do you think does the job best?]

All of the examples will be given in past tense for usage equivalency comparisons. Changing to present tense is a naturally more active approach, but we often need to write in third person past tense.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B White

A spider named Charlotte spun an amazing web to save Wilbur the pig from slaughter.

[The focus here is on Charlotte spinning the web. Backloading the sentence with slaughter makes the reader realize the importance of what she did.]

Wilbur the pig was saved from slaughter when a spider named Charlotte spun an amazing web.
[WAS focuses our attention on Wilbur the pig being saved. We end with the intriguing idea of an amazing spider web.]

Which sentence did you like best? It may depend on what aspect you liked best about Charlotte’s Web.

More Examples

Three more examples built around The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:

Dorothy splashed a pail of water on the Wicked Witch and killed her.
[The focus is on Dorothy’s action. Was is not needed.]

The Wicked Witch was killed when Dorothy splashed a pail of water at her.
[WAS changes the focus to the Wicked Witch being killed.]

A pail of water was tossed at the Wicked Witch by Dorothy. The water splashed over the witch and killed her.  
[This WAS shifts the focus to the pail of water as the instrument of death. This is an example of how a news report can focus reader attention.]

Use WAS to locate the action in time, or to focus on a particular aspect.

Dorothy was splashing water at the witch.

[We see the bucket in Dorothy’s hands, and water is splashing at poor old Wicked.]

Dorothy splashed water at the witch.

[Using splashed avoids employing WAS, but it completes the action. The witch is now doused and melting or already melted. There is no WAS, but the action is over.]

Water was splashed at the witch by Dorothy.

[This is extremely passive. Focus is on the water having been thrown. The witch is now a boring waxy puddle, and actor credit is prepositionally tacked on the end.]

Two more examples:

Suppose your hero or heroine sees a boy jumping off a cliff as she drives by. Do you write: The boy was jumping off a cliff. OR. The boy jumped off a cliff. 

There is a distinction. This last wonderful example is provided by author, Patience Griffin, and came from her brilliant Penguin editor:

The man was digging a grave. OR. The man dug a grave.  There’s a grave difference. LOL.

That concludes my case for the much-maligned WAS. It is up to you the jury to decide the fate of WAS. Cast your vote as a jury member.

Is WAS guilty of unforgivable passivity? Or will you grant WAS a conditional reprieve? Share your examples of effective or ineffective WAS usages in the comments! I'd love to see them.

* * * * * *

About Kathleen

Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 600,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films. The series is currently in its third film option.


November 1-15, 2021, Kathleen will teach a course on The Truth About the Writing Life and Money, at Margie Lawson Writer’s Academy   

24 responses to “A Case for WAS: The Much-Maligned Passive Voice”

  1. V.M.Sang says:

    I enjoyed this post, Kathleen. Yes, there is a reason to use 'was' in some circumstances, which you admirably demonstrate. However, we all need to be very careful, and look at where we want the emphasis to be.
    I am also delighted at your demonisation of those little words, prepositions. I have what seemed like a one woman campaign against them until I read this. So many books I read or critique have an overabundance of the pesky little things.
    People don't sit, they sit down, or lie down. They meet with, instead of just meet. They jump over the fence instead of simply jumping it etc. And I must mention the most irritating of all--off of. Why not simply take it off somewhere? Off of is meaningless.
    Thank you for such a useful and readable post.
    And the puppy is gorgeous.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Good Morning V.M.
      Your most welcome. I'm delighted you enjoyed the post. (And the puppy) LOL
      It's so cool that you already knew about how some of those rascally prepositions slow down our work. Your additional examples were great. I needed that reminder. I'm always forgetting about the sit down thing. Thanks. You must totally rock active voice.

      Happy writing!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I don't get why people think any sentence using "was" is passive. Look at the opening paragraph of "Killing Floor" by Lee Child. Didn't seem to hurt his career.

    I agree that looking for "was ...ing" construction can make for stronger writing. But I absolutely, positively abhor present tense writing. I find it distances me from the action rather than bring me closer. It's hard to get into, and every time I pick up the book, I have to start over. There are maybe three authors who I like enough and who can make me forget I'm reading present tense. If I'm hunting for a new book and the sample is present tense, I move on. According to James Scott Bell, "it's a gimmick, a bit too much of Look at my style! Pretty skillful, right?"

    Obviously, publishers think it's worth selling, and I'm not trying to change anyone's mind if they like it. Just going on record to say I don't like it. (Which isn't really what your post is about, but your paragraph about present tense being naturally more active hit my buttons.)

    Everything else was great advice, especially the prepositions.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Hi Terry!
      Thank you for your example. Yes, the incomparable Lee Child dared place three WASs in his opening paragraph.

      Here it is:
      "I WAS ARRESTED IN ENO’S DINER. AT TWELVE O’CLOCK. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town." --Lee Child, Killing Floor

      I also appreciate your argument in favor of past tense. It is a lovely tense—the grand tense preferred by writers for centuries. And for good reason. It provides the author broad descriptive latitude. Many benefits lie in the comfortable folds of Past Tense's skirt. But as with our tricky little friend WAS, there is a place and a use for all tenses.
      First person present tense is a device strongly favored by Young Adult and middle-grade readers. For that reason I use it when writing for them, and revert to third person past on my adult novels. Tenses, all tenses, are merely additional tools in our toolbox.Play with them all. Use the ones that work for you.

      Loved hearing your opinion. Differing opinions make discussions like this richer. Thank you!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Terry, I have a really hard time reading present tense too. I don't know whether it's gimmick or not, but it does distract me from the story most of the time. I don't know if it's the tense or the writer's skill, but it's a rare reading choice for me.

  3. Jenny Hansen says:

    Kat, thanks so much for posting with us! I loved this post because it made me laugh AND it made me think. Your examples were just terrific. 🙂

  4. Great insights. I try to stay active (both physically and authorially) and your ideas and examples will help me be more strategic.

    The first line of my first published novel reads, "It was poker night in the ninth ring of Hell and the demon Belial was in trouble."

  5. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    It's a wonderful reminder that we can use the whole spectrum of words and grammar in our writing to carry the story. I've often deliberated over a phrase and opted for the 'cleaner' version when the passive voice may have been the better choice for pacing or tone.

    I also encourage the gratuitous use of puppies. It works for me!

    Thanks for the fun post!
    Kris

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Hi Kris! LOL "gratuitous use of puppies."
      I'm so happy you liked the post. Yeah, it's really all about where do we want to focus the reader.
      I, too, covet crisp clean prose. Although, sadly, I often fail at that. I have this little quote on the wall by my computer. "Clean is great, clear is better, getting your point/image/story across is priceless."

      PS: Love your articles here on WITS. The meditation one is a fave.

      • Kris Maze says:

        Thank you! I usually write the mindfulness pieces to help me remember to take those steps. It makes my writing go so much more smoothly. I'm happy it helps other writers, too!

        It's good to see your post here. I love the fresh and spunky tone. 🙂 And I hope to see more from you soon!

  6. Barb DeLong says:

    Great post! Since I provide feedback/line edits on many stories, this is a keeper. I find it hard to get through a novel in first person present tense, but I can take it in a well-written short story. Saying that, I just completed a flash fiction in first/present. My crit group will let me know how well I did.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Hi Barb!
      Thank you. I'm happy you enjoyed it. High praise coming from an editor and writer. You editors possess a set of skills that mystify and impress me.

      I'm very curious how you liked writing the flash fiction in first/present when it is not your preference as a reader? I'd love to know.

      It is interesting that so many adults seem to have a dislike for first/present. I wonder why kids and teens like it so much? Ideas?

      • Barb DeLong says:

        Kathleen, I'm not any kind of professional editor, just a fellow writer who has a certain degree of craft and grammar skill. My large group shares their work for feedback on a regular basis. As for my aversion to first person present tense, I find it exhausting in longer pieces--maybe it's the immediacy of the present tense, because I do read a lot of first person. The combination sets up some kind of constant tension in me. Perhaps younger readers LOVE that aspect of it. They can put themselves right in the character's shoes. For some reason, my humorous flash fiction piece about a speed dater called out for first/present, and my crit group loved it. I guess I pulled it off.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    genius explanation!

    denise

  8. C. K. Crouch says:

    Hi Kathleen and everyone,

    I've argued with Pro Writing Aid for weeks. I had a police detective talking to the wife of a man. The man walked in on an armed robbery. (He & his wife are both soldiers. She waited in the car)
    The detective tells her "He was gone before you reached the doors." It flags He was gone as passive. Why?

    A nightlight glowed a soft blue. Enough light to see her daughter without a bright light, which would wake Izzy all the way. That’s all she needed. Izzy wide awake and ready to play at midnight. The time of night when her little blue eyes should be closed in sleep.

    It flags that last sentence as having to many unnecessary words. It won't read well if I do that. Izzy is almost 5 months old. No mother that has to get up at 5t00 AM wants her daughter up at midnight thinking it's time to play, baby has to get up at 5:00 AM also to go to daycare.

    This is based on conversations with friends and 18 months+ working in daycare. (Never had any of my own, just "adopted" everyone elses.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Good Morning C.K.!
      I'm glad the post resonated with you. Very sorry to hear you have been the victim of a mindless AI WAS-wipe. My condolences. Your example is perfectly fine. There is no other way to say your example sentence sensibly.

      You are the very reason I wrote this post. It is so frustrating that AI and many editors and writers mix up PAST tense with PASSIVE voice. Be of good cheer. You are now armed with the know-how to say no thank you to AI grammar checker's incorrect suggestions and move forward in confidence. I have to do it all the time.

      And as for unnecessary words, AI will often flag me for the same thing on passages that end up being the lines my readers quote as favorites or highlight as keepers.

      Confidence, C.K.! When you know it's right and the way you want it--have confidence!

      Arguing with AI grammar checkers is futile. My friend Lisa Norman wrote a brilliant article here at WITS on why AI grammar checkers cannot replace living breathing thinking editors. I think you will like it. https://writersinthestormblog.com/2021/09/5-reasons-tech-cant-replace-editors/

  9. Virginia says:

    Almost a century ago, we drilled grammar in school. For every tense, there four variations: simple, perfect (using the verb "have"), progressive (using the verb "be"), and emphatic (Using the verb "do"). There is a reason for the variations: they mean different things. I work, I have worked, I am working, I do work, for example, are all saying different things.

    We were taught that "passive voice" is when the subject of the sentence was the recipient of the action. "The ball was hit by John" instead of "John hit the ball". Passive voice often makes for awkward sentences, but sometimes the reverse is true.

    "Be" is not passive. (If you doubt that, consider how many actions are going on in your body while you are simply being.)

    Yes, you could write "Her beauty took my breath away", which is stronger than "she was beautiful", but the latter is not passive and no amount of insistence by an AI can make it passive.

    Perhaps those who designed the AIs either didn't understand the subtleties of language or used the wrong definitions of "active" and "passive". Verbs are neither athletes nor couch potatoes.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Beautiful examples, Virginia! Thank you.

      Perhaps we will be fortunate and the programmers of the AI online grammar tools will read your comments and the post. Wouldn't that be lovely?

  10. deleyna says:

    Kathleen, your writing is beautiful and entertaining, even when discussing grammar. And the puppy WAS a nice touch.

    • KathleenBaldwin says:

      Awwwh, Thank you. Now, if I could only get that darn puppy to stop chewing up my papers. LOL
      I loved your post on the perils of AI grammar checkers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


2014-2020

Subscribe to WITS

Categories

Archives

Archives