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Is "was" actually the problem? - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
heleninwales
heleninwales
Is "was" actually the problem?
An excellent blogpost by Emma Darwin tackling the oft repeated advice to purge "was" from your writing.

As she points out, it's not really that "was" is bad and in some cases it's exactly what you want, but it could be a sign that the writing isn't as fluent and vivid as it could be. Therefore, rather than seeing "was" as intrinsically bad and trying to twist sentences around to avoid it, you should regard it as a warning signal that something isn't quite right. I love her final warning!

"But it seems to me that you can't possibly work out what to do about a sentence which has set the alarm off, if you don't understand what's really going on inside it. It's a bit like realising that the canary in your mine has stopped singing, without knowing why it's dead or what you should then do. Swapping it for a blackbird isn't going to help."


Anyway, it's just as well these "was" haters aren't writing in Welsh because Welsh uses the imperfect/continuous past far more than English does. So where in English you would say, "I lived in London for two years," in Welsh you would say, "I was living in London..." Similarly, "I thought it looked different!" would be "I was thinking that it is looking different!"

Current Mood: busy busy

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Comments
readthisandweep From: readthisandweep Date: May 22nd, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
'I was writin' all day, I was...
Honest, I was at it for hours. I was thinkin' I was going round in circles tryin' to work it all out.'
But I done it.'

Tidy.'
lil_shepherd From: lil_shepherd Date: May 22nd, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've never heard this particular piece of 'advice' but Emma dissects it beautifully.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: May 22nd, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen it start as 'getting rid of passive voice' - 'hunt down "was" and eliminate it' - and some people don't seem to grok that 'was' has more functions than that.

I also feel that passive voice has a function in fiction - sometimes the action is important, or the object acted upon - 'the ship was launched one fine day in August' and sometimes recasting in active voice will lead to a text feeling forced and awkward.

'The prisoners were freed by royal decree' - how would you rewrite that?
lil_shepherd From: lil_shepherd Date: May 22nd, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I get very annoyed by the idea that, in writing of any kind, there are things that must or must not be done. There is, indeed, a use for the passive voice, and avoiding it only produces more problems.
cariadwen From: cariadwen Date: May 22nd, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was thinking that too!
brownnicky From: brownnicky Date: May 22nd, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Never heard of this before. I quite like 'was' it is so common in speech but then my family is welsh so perhaps it is more common in our speech than is usual.
dendrophilous From: dendrophilous Date: May 23rd, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I try to get rid of "was" - not all of them, but I have a tendency to use the "She was standing by the door" pattern a lot, and it gets way too repetitive. "was" is an easy thing to search for to also catch the boring "she was tired"s.
jongibbs From: jongibbs Date: May 23rd, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great link, Margaret. Thanks for sharing :)
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