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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Should You Eliminate "Was" From Your Writing? Why Sometimes "the Rules" are Wrong.

No matter how much time and energy we put into querying agents and editors--or learning the ins and outs of self-publishing--it's all wasted if we don’t have a polished piece of work. One way to make sure your book is the best it can be is to brush up on your nuts-and-bolts writing skills. (Also a good way to save money in editing fees.)

So In honor of the kids going back to school, I’ve got a grammar lesson today. (Puts on schoolmarm hat.) 

As soon as you joined your first critique group, found a beta reader, or joined a creative writing workshop, somebody no doubt lectured you about avoiding the word “was.” In fact, you were probably admonished to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be” from your fledgling prose.

Your well-meaning mentors told you “was” is “passive,” so you must avoid it at all costs, along with adverbs, run-on sentences, and naming all of your characters “Bob”.

The people who told you this were repeating "The Rules" they heard from their own critique groups, beta readers, and workshop leaders when they started writing.

The problem is: they were wrong.

This particular rule has good intentions. But it’s based on a lack of understanding of the rules of grammar. The verb “to be” has many functions in modern English and some have nothing to do with the passive voice.

Sadly, English grammar seems to have disappeared from most schoolrooms and—unless you’ve studied another language—you may not have been taught the basics.

We have a number of past tenses in English:

  • Simple Past
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Continuous (or “Progressive”)
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Perfect (or “Pluperfect”)
  • Past Perfect Continuous.

Some of these tenses are created by using various forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” They’re called “auxiliary verbs” when they are used this way.

Simple past:

I barfed.

Present Perfect: 

I have been barfing since I ate that squirrel-meat chili.

Here an action starts in the past and comes up to the present. (“Perfect” in grammar doesn’t mean the tense is awesome. “Perfect” just means it’s finished.)

Past Continuous: 

I was barfing when Mrs. Poindexter arrived to invite me to tea.

A continuous action in the past gets interrupted by the simple past. “Was” is necessary to create this tense with the verb “to barf.” “Was” in this auxiliary function has nothing to do with the stand-alone meaning of the verb “was” meaning “existed in the past.”

Past Perfect: 

I had barfed right before she came to the door.

An action happened in the past BEFORE the past of the story. “Had” is the auxiliary verb that creates this tense. This is different from the stand-alone meaning of the verb “had” meaning “possessed in the past”.

Past Perfect continuous: 

I had been barfing for hours.

An action happened in the past over a period of time until it got interrupted by another action. The verbs “to have” AND “to be” are combined with the primary verb “to barf” to make this tense.

But these tenses have nothing to do with the Passive VOICE

Barfing was caused by squirrel chili.   

In the Passive Voice, we use forms of "to be" when the object of the verb becomes the subject of the sentence.

Or, as my mother, the English professor, would say:

The passive voice is avoided whenever possible by good writers.

Then, just to be confusing, we have the Subjunctive MOOD.  (Sometimes called the “Unreal Conditional” tense.)

If I were smarter, I’d have brought my own lunch.  

It also uses the auxiliary verb “to be”. (It’s quite the multi-purpose word, isn’t it?) The word “were” doesn’t put us in the past. It tells us he’s not actually smart.

But what about this?

If I was even smarter, I’d have shot my uncle instead of the durned squirrel.

This is incorrect grammar, because the subjunctive uses “were,” not “was.”

So “was” should be eliminated here, right?

If you’re aiming for grammatical prose, absolutely, but if you’re writing fiction, it’s probably just fine. You don’t want all your characters to sound like college professors.

What does this all mean?

It means sometimes “was” and “were” are absolutely necessary for meaning and by no means “passive.”

I was just sitting there when the squirrel bit me.

This means something different from: 

I just sat there when the squirrel bit me.

Eliminating "was" changes the meaning from “the squirrel bit me with no provocation,” to “I didn’t react when the squirrel bit me.”

However, your critique group didn’t steer you totally wrong when they told you to be wary of “was.”  
This isn’t because the word is always passive, but because it can be part of lazy sentence construction.
Beginning writers tend to write flabby sentences like this:

 There was a squirrel sitting on the picnic table and he was eating my peanut butter sandwich. He was looking at me like I was nobody to be scared of, so I decided it was time to get my shotgun.

That can be cleaned up by using simpler verbs:

A squirrel sat on the picnic table eating my peanut butter sandwich. He looked me in the eye without a speck of fear. I went for my shotgun.

See how that’s easier to read and gives a stronger, clearer image?

Another note on past tenses

Most readers say they prefer reading a book written in the past tense (although present tense is popular in some YA right now.) But writing in the past can be difficult when you get into the dreaded flashback.

Of course you can eliminate that problem by not writing any flashbacks, which I’m sure some writing teachers would recommend. But sometimes the story absolutely requires one. That’s when you go into the past perfect tense. But you don’t have to stay there, because it sounds awkward.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he had run into a gang of squirrels who had attacked him with giant acorns.

Actually, you only have to use the past perfect (the “had” construction) once or twice to introduce the flashback, then continue in the simple past and readers will automatically adjust.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he ran into a gang of squirrels who attacked him with giant acorns.

It’s all in the distant past, but we know that without all the extra “hads.”

So to answer the question I posed in the title: A search for “was” in your manuscript can indeed help clean up your prose. (What did we do before the days of the search and replace function?) But don’t say it’s because “was” is “passive” or you will make grammarians go totally squirrely.

For more on the subject of the passive voice, awesome mystery author and fellow grammar maven  Elizabeth S. Craig has a great post on it this week, too. Check her out at Laura Howard's blog. I'd also like to thank the wonderful Aussie writer and "word nerd" Karin Cox for her input. 

So Scriveners, have you been trying to eliminate the word “was” from your deathless prose? What other words have you been told to avoid? What other "Rules" turned out to be wrong for your writing?

UK's Superstar thriller writer Stephen Leather calls it "The best few dollars an aspiring writer can spend" HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE  is NOW IN PAPERBACK for only $9.99 Kindle edition, $2.99.

One place to brush up on your skills is a writers conference. A great one is the Central Coast Writers Conference in beautiful San Luis Obispo CA. It will be held on September 21st and 22nd on the campus of Cuesta College. I'll be there, teaching about how to be a writer in the e-age. 

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Blogger Chihuahua Zero said...

I made the mistakes of limiting correct usings of "was" in the past.

Thinking about it, it's one of this words that have to exist for contrast. Without any plain or normal sentence constructions, the prose can come off as uneven.

August 19, 2012 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Ahaha, the blasted passive voice. I used to have massive trouble with that - every other sentence I wrote was passive voice, and it made for terrible reading. However, a crash course in Spanish later, with an introduction to the subjunctive included, everything de-tangled and it's a lot easier to avoid. Besides, everyone loves proactive storytelling.

Also, that squirrel theme for your sentences . . . giggle fuel to the gods, I swear!

August 19, 2012 at 10:26 AM  
Blogger Cheryl Bradshaw said...

Enjoyed this! I eliminated almost all "was" from Black Diamond Death, my first novel, and in the end, some of my sentences sounded weird. I have been revising it over the past few weeks. It's terrible to look back and realize all the bad advice I received that had me freaking out when I first started out as a writer.

August 19, 2012 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger Rick Daley said...

That was a great breakdown, thanks.

I've heard rumor that agents and editors hate the word "that" but I find that sometimes it is necessary.

Limiting passive voice is sound advice, but eliminating it is nearly impossible, and totally impractical.

August 19, 2012 at 10:43 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—You may—or may not be—surprised to learn that during the decades I was an editor & worked with many, many professional writers, I never, not once, heard of these "rules." They seem to be a creature of the interwebz.

Your post is excellent & makes me wonder if you plan a follow up: How To Diagram A Sentence 101.

I have a feeling that, like grammar, learning how to diagram a sentence is also no longer taught.

It occurs to me that the reason "the rules" were unheard of back in the day is that grammar & sentence structure were a part of the basic grade school curriculum. IIRC, people learned the elements of grammar & sentence structure in about the 5th or 6th grades. A writer who doesn't know & understand grammar is like a accountant who can't add, a techie who can't code or a carpenter who doesn't know how to use a hammer.

We're talking basic "tools of the trade" here & your post is mission critical.

August 19, 2012 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger J. R. Tomlin said...

Good points all. It might have been worthwhile to explain what the passive voice is though and why it is well to generally avoid it.

August 19, 2012 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Chihuahua--You're so right about needing simple, straightforward sentences. Actually, that's why we're told to eliminate the passive voice, because it creates convoluted sentences, like "The squirrel chili was barfed by me."

Charley--What you're saying is so important--studying another language helps you understand your own so much more!

Cheryl--I got a lot of that bad advice, too. I did the same thing--made a mess of a perfectly good manuscript trying to follow all the "rules".

Rick--LOL "THAT" is another one they tell you to eliminate. I find about half the time I can, but the rest of the time, the removal also eliminates clarity. Thanks good addition.

Ruth--You're lucky you weren't subjected to them. I think they're older than the Interwebz, because I first heard this one in the early 90s at a writers conference. It may have started in the writers conference community, which is a kind of reality unto itself :-) But we heard nothing about it when we were studying grammar back in the days when we DID learn to diagram sentences. Hmmm--could we do that in Blogger?

J. R. I did have a few more things in here about the Passive Voice, but had to edit them out for space. Maybe I should have left them in. Most writers know it makes for awkward, weaker sentences. "The squirrel meat was barfed by me" isn't as strong as "I barfed the chili."

August 19, 2012 at 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Jean Marie Bauhaus said...

Great article, and timely, too. Your advice on past perfect tense in flashbacks is pretty much how I handled a flashback in my current novel, but as I'm editing I've been debating whether I should go back and put in more past perfect verbs to make it more technically correct. Thanks for the confirmation that I don't need to worry about it.

August 19, 2012 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger Judith Mercado said...

Anne, thanks for reminding me of my treasured English classes. And, you're planning to write about diagramming sentences? Oh, I feel like an addict who just got a fix, which officially makes me ... what, an addict? Maybe just weird. I look forward to any tutorials you offer on English grammar. We all need reminders!

August 19, 2012 at 11:41 AM  
Blogger Annalisa Crawford said...

Although I do it instinctively, I think your post highlights why I favour present tense in my writing!

('Bob' always makes me think of Blackadder!)

August 19, 2012 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Funny what I used to do when I was on the agent hunt. Stripping my prose until it was barely readable. Now that I've chosen the path of self-publishing, I do whatever I want to do. Thankfully, one of my critters is a grammar genius so she calls the shots when I'm absolutely wrong. But more often than not, I'm not. Which is nice.

I think your next post should be about the -ly words. I love them and just like was, I leave them in my stories.

August 19, 2012 at 12:16 PM  
Blogger T.L. Bodine said...

THANK YOU for this. I don't know how many times I've launched on a grammarian's rage at people snottily tearing other people's prose apart based on flimsy understanding of the "rules." I'm normally not a grammar maven, but when it's people who should know better, it really bothers me.

I was home schooled through a very traditional (daresay, stodgy) correspondence program, and we diagrammed sentences in elementary school. I still do it in my head sometimes to sort out parts of speech.

My worst grammar maven experience happened in grad school. I was in a linguistics class with about 20 English education and creative writing students. I forget what we were learning, but it involved intransitive and transitive verbs.

Nobody in class knew what those were.

Even after the professor explained about direct objects. Everyone was just staring at her blankly, because they had obviously never heard of any of this in their lives. I ended up having to sit through half an hour of explanation of a concept I learned in grade school because a bunch of future-english-teachers-of-the-world had never been taught grammar. So sad. So disturbing.

August 19, 2012 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger J. B. Chicoine said...

I really appreciate the time you put into making this subject understandable. You make the understanding of grammar rules feel doable. Thanks. :)

...as a side point, I recall reading somewhere that writing 'papers' (I guess term papers or theses) where one makes an assertion without attributing the 'action' to anyone or thing specifically is one of the primary arenas where using passive voice is so frowned upon. (there's a convoluted sentence that surely breaks the rules!)

August 19, 2012 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

So happy to be back to your Sunday marvels, Anne !! Okay ... I'd say Ruth is "spot on."

Shrunk % White are a good tool to have handy. Elizabeth is stellar in her marvelous posts.

Now to get back to those pesky squirrels ... fun, funner, funniest! Bacis grammar rules taught this way would improve everyone's writing and give them some comic relief.

How about the humourist piece done by Winston Churchill on ending a sentence with a preposition?

Or trying to NOT have a passive verb in dialogue or first person?

Who ever said that "that" is another word we should erradicate from our MS?

Antecedents, passive verbes, prepositions, excessive pronouns ... multiple in our dreams like the buckets and mops the Sorcerer's Apprentice :):)

August 19, 2012 at 1:26 PM  
Blogger D.G. Hudson said...

One of the best discussion on 'was' that I've seen.

Tenses give me trouble, especially when using the omniscient POV, and when using backstory - I picked up a couple of pointers from your advice.

Enjoyed the post.

August 19, 2012 at 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Bridget McKenna said...

I'd never advise eliminating it completely, but most uses of it are weak and improvable with a better verb.

You did a wonderful job of showing "was" in a new light. I hope it's grateful.

August 19, 2012 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger Chihuahua Zero said...

My class did some sentence diagraming in middle school, but just some.

August 19, 2012 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jean-Marie: I think most of us do this naturally, by copying what we’ve read in other books, but I was awfully pleased when I read this is standard for fiction writing.

Judith—I’m glad this post is turning out to be so popular. I might even have to have my mom do a guest post on grammar.

Annalisa—I’ve read that present tense is very popular with YA right now. I originally wrote The Best Revenge in present tense, then changed it to past when a lot of agents complained. I still wonder if I should have stuck to my guns.

Anne—Oh, the lowly adverb! They sure are out of fashion. But when you write Historicals, minimalism doesn’t really work, does it? Like you, I definitely messed up some perfectly good manuscripts trying to please agents. (See my comment to Annalisa)

T.L.—I know lots of English teachers who don’t know what a verb is, much less whether it’s transitive or not. I honestly don’t know why grammar isn’t taught any more. It made writing so much easier.

J.B.—That’s probably when students weasel their way out of researching source material by using a passive construction: “It is said… that squirrels make good eating,” instead of “Col. David Crockett said…that squirrels make good eating.” But you can still weasel without using the passive voice. I remember using the old “Many scholars agree…” phrase.

Fois—You crack me up. Yes. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “You should never use a preposition to end a sentence with.”

D.G.—But if you follow the rules, you never use the omniscient POV and backstory :-) I’ve never attempted the omniscient myself, but it can be brilliant in comedy (Dave Barry and Chris Moore use it very effectively) and has been standard in high fantasy for a long time. But I won’t pretend it isn’t harder to write.

Bridget—LOL. I’m expecting a kickback check from “Was” any minute now. You’re right that searching for the word usually red-flags some lazy sentences, but it’s silly to eliminate it altogether.

August 19, 2012 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Amen & Hallelujah!
I get so tired of Was Nazis who don't get it. Thanks for this post. Here's hoping there are Was Nazis out there in the blogosphere, shaking their heads & saying, "Well I'll be darned!"

August 19, 2012 at 3:01 PM  
Anonymous Hell Cat said...

Oh, man. You would have been useful in the spring when I had to write all my history papers without passive voice. The professors forced us to write a paper just using active voice, an active voice paper using primary/secondary sources, and finally a comparison of two texts with minimal to no passive voice. Not to mention our power point and presentation. (That was fun - oh, wait.)

'To be' is definitely useful and can helpful in transitioning sentences but you need to be able to explain why somewhere in the sentence. Or rather that's what I've taken away from reading books from an early age. It's more than a shortcut to higher word count.

I'm taking a creative writing course this semester, so it'll be interesting to see what happens with my professor. Being an English major can be an adventure, so I'm learning with each having their own preferred set of guidelines. My teachers are more driven crazy by my need to write in comma splices, mixed up tenses in every sentence, and gracious knows what else. I simply write as I speak.

August 19, 2012 at 3:11 PM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I am bookmarking this!
Usually I can find a more dynamic way to reword a sentence with 'was,' but sometimes it really is the best choice.

August 19, 2012 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger Sabrina Sumsion said...

I heard the "was" advice and spread it as gospel as well . . . until Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings came out and I snuggled up with a blanket, hot cocoa and chips. As I slipped into his story, there it was . . . WAS! I gasped audibly, almost spilled my cocoa and read further. There were several wases (wasi? wouses?) How could that be? After emptying a bookcase, I discovered that many master story tellers use the pariah word. So I shrugged, decided that if other authors could use the word, I could, too and I've been happier since!

Thanks for this post. I've linked it to some friends and hopefully it will spread to the corners of the earth!

August 19, 2012 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

C.S. I'm with you. I hope they'll be darned, too. :-)

Hell--It's partly your professor's fault, if he didn't help you see the difference between passive voice and the past continuous tense. I think everybody assumes somebody else is going to teach students this stuff. You definitely want to avoid the passive voice when it's used for weasely stuff like "it is said..." But there are times when it is necessary and correct.

Alex--I agree that it's sometimes the best choice. It's also good to learn what's actually passive and what's just another verb form.

Sabrina--I used to do that too. I'd be happily reading some classic, then I'd put my editor's hat on and I'd find all these "mistakes". (Try "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" Gee. Maybe they weren't mistakes at all. :-) Thanks for spreading the word.

August 19, 2012 at 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Gib said...

"I heard the "was" advice and spread it as gospel as well . . . until Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings came out and I snuggled up with a blanket, hot cocoa and chips. As I slipped into his story, there it was . . . WAS! I gasped audibly, almost spilled my cocoa and read further. There were several wases (wasi? wouses?) How could that be? After emptying a bookcase, I discovered that many master story tellers use the pariah word. So I shrugged, decided that if other authors could use the word, I could, too and I've been happier since!

Thanks for this post. I've linked it to some friends and hopefully it will spread to the corners of the earth!"


I haven't read The Way of Kings, but I've read plenty of other enjoyable novels, including early-on bestsellers that used was. I guess some readers are more easily thrown out by particularly words. But I think at the end of the day, your novel's story is what's gonna make or break it. Of course if you use "was" to the extreme that's gonna turn off some readers.

August 19, 2012 at 5:49 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Great post. And comments. I learned grammar, know grammar and am pretty sure I use it correctly but I couldn't explain most of the rules if you asked me. Just know something is wrong when i hear or read it. You did an excellent job! And I agree...sometimes a "was" is just a "was" and is where it should be.

August 19, 2012 at 6:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Gib, I'm not actually talking about whether or not to use the passive voice. I'm explaining that "was" is used for lots of things besides creating the passive voice. If you aren't allowed to use it, you're not allowed to use the past continuous tense, (which has nothing to do with the passive voic.) This cripples your writing.

Christine--We who grew up in an earlier time were lucky that we got taught these things when we were young enough that it became part of what "sounds right" to us.

August 19, 2012 at 7:01 PM  
Anonymous Karin said...

Excellent post, Anne, and thanks so much for the shout out.

I often see authors take these "rules" too much to heart and it can cause all sorts of problems. Everything in moderation, I say.

August 19, 2012 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Laura Pauling said...

So many of the "lessons" I learned turned out to be like this. But I think it's something all writers have to struggle through to find the real meaning of the rule and how to apply it to their writing.

August 19, 2012 at 8:56 PM  
Anonymous Christy said...

Ha ha, love your squirrel analogy. I sat on a bench at EPCOT, eating some fish and chips when the squirrel came up to me. Thinking he was cute, I tossed him some of my fries. He kept getting closer and closer, up on the bench, just inches from my plate. I kept feeding him bits of fry, tossing them away. Finally the dern squirrel jumped on my knee. It was freaky! I wish I had a shotgun. When the fries were all gone, so was the squirrel. True story, I swear.

Love the reminders about "was." See, I only used it a couple times in the whole paragraph. I'm proud of myself!

August 19, 2012 at 9:11 PM  
Blogger Callie Leuck said...

All of these sentences about barfing made me giggle.

I *knew* I was right about the past perfect introducing flashbacks (i.e. you don't need to write the entire 1,000-word flashback in past perfect.) Any sentence with "had had" in it makes me cringe, for some reason. But in general, repetitive past perfect really does grate on the nerves!

August 19, 2012 at 9:13 PM  
Blogger Marcia said...

Yes, wonderful post, and probably will always be timely.

The thing I have trouble with knowing grammar *terms*. I don't use "had" often, I take out many--though of course not all-- instances of "was" because at times I need a stronger way to say something. As you say, I've probably picked that up from reading.

But "perfect", "continuous", how do those words actually help describe the tense they refer to? I can't diagram a sentence to save my life. I get the words "adverb" and "adjective" mixed up all the time, but I sure can use adverbs and adjectives correctly.

I feel grammatically handicapped because of that. I like the examples you use here because they're simple and clear, which really helps when you keep getting grammar terms confused :)

August 19, 2012 at 9:19 PM  
Anonymous Joanne said...

Ok, I tried to follow the grammar lesson, ma'am, but the squirrels distracted me.

August 19, 2012 at 9:53 PM  
Blogger Melissa Rynbout said...

Thanks for this post. I had already made up my mind that it was too awkward to be using 'had' all the time during a flashback and reduced it to just the once, so I'm glad to read your post confirming I was right! I am a stickler for the rules but I'll break a rule any day if it means better clarity for the reader.

August 20, 2012 at 5:40 AM  
OpenID angelaquarles.com said...

Great post Anne. Sometimes was is needed, but I do usually try and see if there's a stronger way of saying it. If I've tried and can't, then I don't beat myself up about it.

Another thing that annoys me are the 'past perfect' eliminators. And I'm not talking about the flashbacks where you ease into it with past perfect and then change to simple, but rather those instances where you have just one thing to relate that happened before the events taking place and past perfect is needed to convey this. I've literally had critters highlight all my uses of "She'd" and say 'this is distracting'

August 20, 2012 at 6:00 AM  
Blogger Rachna Chhabria said...

At one time, I could be accused of using lots of passive voice. My MS had a lot of Was in it. Nowadays, I try to avoid an overuse of was, but sometimes its unavoidable.

Thanks, Anne for this wonderful post. Am bookmarking it.

August 20, 2012 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger M. Christine Weber said...

Fabulous advice, Anne. I love your distinctions because, yes, they DO make all the difference to us readers! Used well, we don't notice them. Used poorly, we're either slodging through passive writing or RACING ALONG ON SOME HYPERACTIVE, ALL ACTION, ALL THE TIME, SENTENCE STRUCTURE TRAIN that we can't get a break from.

Also? I love your squirrel examples. Note to self: avoid gangs of rabid acorn-throwing squirrels.


August 20, 2012 at 7:59 AM  
Blogger Paula Martin said...

Excellent post, Anne. I've been trying to explain past continuous to a newbie writer who had read the advice about getting rid of 'was' in her manuscript.
Maybe the worst examples of the use of 'was' that I've seen are: "She was sat on the couch' closely followed by 'He was stood by the window'. Eeek!

August 20, 2012 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger Annie said...

Excellent (and very funny) post. Thanks for covering this!

August 20, 2012 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Karin—Yes. And it helps to know the “why” of a rule before we follow it blindly.

Laura—Exactly. It helps know something about grammar in order to make good grammar decisions.

Christy—LOL. Thanks for sharing that story! I’ve seen squirrels eat mayo out of those little plastic containers with the foil on top. They open it like a nut and scoop out the contents. Fearless little thieves.

Callie—Any sentence with “had had” needs help. ;-)

Marcia—I think the education system let you down—along with a lot of other people. Grammar is as important as arithmetic. If you’d been taught this stuff when you learned to read, they’d be as easy to understand as “addition” and “subtraction.” “Perfect” just means “complete” and “continuous” means “on-going.” Adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns. As Charley mentions above, studying a second language can often be the best way to learn the terms.


Melissa—Right. It’s about the reader, not the rule.

Angela—Again, this seems like a case of clarity vs. somebody’s “rule”. Clarity should always win.
Rachna—Thanks. “Was” can indicate passive voice or weak construction or it can indicate a lot of past continuous action. When it’s action, leave it in.

M. Christine—I think sometimes people forget that readers, like characters, sometimes need to slow down and catch a breath.

Paula—Eeek is right. It sounds as if you may be dealing with people for whom English is a second language. That brings up a whole new set of problems. Many languages don’t have the past continuous tense.

August 20, 2012 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Annie--Thanks! (your comment came in while I was composing that loooong response above.) I figured a little laughter would help keep this dry stuff from putting everybody to sleep.

August 20, 2012 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger Alicia Street said...

Wonderful post as usual, Anne. And your answers to some of the comments are priceless!

August 20, 2012 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger Cathryn Leigh said...

Grammar Lesson! *Dances* - yeah I think I'm one of the first people to have somehow missed grammer in primary school - it got eaten when we moved from Mississippi to Mass. (That's my theory and I"m sticking to it.)

Thank you so much for the lesson. I'm also one that didn't get grammar until Spanish class and looked at the teacher like he was crazy when he said Plupurfect.

Now to squirrle this away under bookmarks *giggles*

And Paper Back E-Age! YEAH! *Kermit the Frog introduction impression* :}

August 20, 2012 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger LD Masterson said...

This was excellent. I'm old enough to have studied grammar in school but those pesky past tenses can still give me a bad moment. I'm bookmarking this post, too.

August 20, 2012 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alicia--Thanks. I had fun with this one.

Cathryn--Thanks Kermit ;-) This is definitely why studying a second language is so important. You don't just get to understand people when you travel, you get the pluperfect. What would you have done without it?

L.D. Thanks. I did get the added help of having two language professors for parents. They wouldn't let me forget.

August 20, 2012 at 4:14 PM  
Blogger Kassandra Lamb said...

Having flashbacks to high school English class.

Thanks for this, Anne. I get kind of tired of being told about "the rules" and often they are being applied much too strigently. Personally I want to know what's so wrong with adverbs, too.

August 20, 2012 at 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Deborah Brasket said...

Great grammar lesson, and so needed.

I think also there are times when the passive voice IS needed, to show distance and actual passivity on the part of a character. It just has to be used with intention, for the right reason.

August 20, 2012 at 11:34 PM  
Blogger graywave said...

Thank you! You would not believe the number of editors who blindly follow this "rule". Now that I have a link to your post in my favourites, the next one to try it can argue with you about it. Honestly, there ought to be some kind of minimal qualification before you can call yourself an editor.

August 21, 2012 at 3:38 AM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

I always try to avoid "There was" at the beginning of a sentence. Your revision of "There was a squirrel" was perfect: "A squirrel sat." I also try to use present tense instead of gerunds (present and past progressive) when possible: "I hate" instead of "I was eating," but, as you pointed out, sometimes the past progressive works better. Lastly, I've heard you should avoid gerunds in titles. And yet, "Writing Down the Bones" was a great title, and I'm sure there are hundreds of others that use gerunds as well. Thanks for the grammar lesson!

August 21, 2012 at 7:14 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kassandra, I've got to admit I love me some adverbs. I write in the voice of a very polite sleuth. Polite people tend to use adverbs. So I use them. I don't think every character in fiction should talk like Ernest Hemingway.

Deborah--That's so true. It's more direct to say "the squirrel was abused" than to say "A person or persons who are unknown to us abused the squirrel."

Graywave--VERY important point. That's probably a whole blogpost unto itself. People are constantly saying "get an editor" but nobody's saying "make sure it's a good editor." Maybe we need a questionnaire. "Do you know the basics of grammar, or do you simply follow a bunch of rules you don't understand?" might be a good start.

Meghan- I'd never heard that rule about titles. But you've got a perfect example. I'm kind of skeptical of all the anti-gerund rules. Yes, people mis-use them, but they're also essential to some constructions.

August 21, 2012 at 9:29 AM  
OpenID wosushi said...

Perfect timing. I am working with my first completed draft and keep bristling at the "remove ALL the was/to be" from your writing advice.

This post is perfect!

August 21, 2012 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger DMS said...

I found this post to be so helpful. This was one of the rules that needed a little more information behind it. I think the way you explained it makes perfect sense (now, if I can just remember your wise words when I am writing). :)


August 21, 2012 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

wosushi--If I can help you keep from stripping your writing of nuanced meaning, then I've done my job. Great to know the post was serendipitous.

DMS--"Information" is the key, isn't it? If people knew why "was" can be the enemy, they'd know when NOT to listen to the advice.

August 22, 2012 at 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Steven Miscandlon said...

Great post. It brought to mind this piece from a couple of years back, which puts the blame for so many grammar misconceptions fairly squarely on 'The Elements of Style'!


August 23, 2012 at 7:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Steven--Thanks so much for this link! I don't know how I missed this great article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I had no idea that Strunk and White were responsible for this--and so many other iron-clad writing "rules." In general, their guidelines are useful, but it's important to know their grammar was shaky and sometimes they were actually wrong.

August 23, 2012 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Caitlin said...

Bookmarking this for later use! Wow, this was really thorough. Hm, perhaps I need to return to my elementary English class. Thank you for sharing this.

August 27, 2012 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Caitlin--thanks! If you still have your old grammar book, it may have all this stuff, but only if you're getting on in years like me. I don't think there's much grammar taught in grammar school any more.

August 27, 2012 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger LK Watts said...

As I write in first person I find it vital to use the word 'was' when I'm writing a paragraph of narration in the past tense. I try to avoid it though when I'm writing action scenes that are happening in the present moment as it does slow the writing down. Like everything else the word 'was' is good in moderation.

September 2, 2012 at 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Laura Ritchie said...

Wonderful post. And I'm so thankful for the "Another note on past tenses" section.

My manuscript returned from the editor with the flashbacks, in my opinion, 'had-ed' to death. As a reader, this has long been a pet peeve of mine. I just can't think of any good reason to repeat ANY word 3-4 times in every... single... sentence. Paragraph after paragraph.

"Yes... this happened to they character last week! We get that already!!!"

My editor is real big on consistency. But, I think it chokes the flow of the story. Soooo, after reading your take on things, I'm going to give those sections the once over again, and I might just smite a few hads in the process.

Heck, you have me feeling so giddy, I could even throw in a was or two just for the fun of it!

Thanks! :)

September 10, 2012 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Laura--I'm so glad I helped. Nothing is more annoying to a reader than a bunch of "had had"s gumming up the prose. This is the problem with academic proofreaders or local college English majors setting themselves up as editors for fiction. They can be great for catching typos, but it's awfully hard for somebody who hasn't done a lot of work with fiction to edit it. A novel that reads like a college English paper is going to be snoozerific to the reader.

September 10, 2012 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Nowick Gray said...

I started reading this post with some trepidation, since my award-winning critique partner had convinced me to prune the was's ruthlessly from two novels. Would I now have to go back and put them in? Actually along the way I was amused/puzzled to see such bestselling writers as Ken Follett and even more literary types use "was" liberally, as much as a dozen times in the all-important first page. What gives?
So I *was* pleased to see how you broke down the issue, first defusing that "passive" rationale, and more importantly, showing how prose can actually be strengthened by pruning those was's in favor of active verbs. In conclusion, I think the operative word for the fault is not so much "passive" as "weak."
Thanks for your attention to this key issue!

April 20, 2014 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nowick--Thanks for commenting!

"Was" isn't always weak either. "I was sitting down to tea when the tornado hit" is not weaker than "I sat down to tea when the tornado hit". It has an entirely different meaning. (And the character sounds like a moron.) The important point I'm trying to make here is that the verb "to be" is used to make the progressive tense as well as the passive voice. There's nothing weak or passive about the progressive tense. Some languages don't have it, but we do in English and we should embrace the clarity it brings.

And anybody who thinks "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" is a weak opener doesn't know much about literature. :-)

April 20, 2014 at 11:33 AM  
Blogger Rebecca E. Grant said...

Love it... and, it makes my head hurt :)

August 25, 2014 at 6:15 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rebecca--Remember they're all just "guidelines" not ironclad rules, and your own intuition probably knows best. :-)

August 25, 2014 at 8:49 AM  
Blogger Darkocean said...

I agree with with you Anne. When working on my wip I read each sentence carefully, take out any past tenses and see if the sentences falls apart. If it does I try revising it. If it's still bad I put it back the way it was as that's the way it has to be. More often then not though it can be revised into something stronger. Now how about debunking the myth that using a narration voice (occasionally) is always bad? (I occasionally use it to condense a necessary but long winded bunch of paragraphs into one quick sentence. I think writers need to know when not to show and when not to always be in deep pov, as it can get exhausting for the reader. I think that when it fits that point and time in the book it's okay to pull back a little. Thank you for this posting Those squirrel are funny. xD

August 12, 2015 at 1:44 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Darkocean--It makes me cringe when people say there's something wrong with writing in the past tense. MOST novels are written in the past tense. Present is best for YA or certain kinds of thrillers. Past tense should be the default mode.

I also totally agree that "show don't tell" can lead to slow, boring storytelling. Don't tell us the man wore black boots, covered in soot, a helmet with a brim longer in the back than the front, and he kept up his pants with red suspenders. Tell us he's a fireman, already!

August 12, 2015 at 2:31 PM  

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