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 th

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