Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Redlines Twelve: Had and Was

I'm so busy right now. I keep wanting to return to our pitches, and we will, but until I clear a couple of major projects off my desk, we'll have to be content with the next redlines article.


Once upon a time, someone started a rumor that the words “had” and “was” should be excised ruthlessly from all prose. As with many good rumors, this one grew from a seed of truth. This month, we’re going to examine the reason behind the rumor and give you some guidelines for when to change these verbs.

Weak Verbs, Strong Verbs

Some say that English is a noun-based language, and they might be right. Our dictionaries are packed with nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns, such as “rely” into “reliance”), and with verbs that pull double duty as nouns (such as “walk” and “dance”).

One peculiar result of this noun-dependency is that in sentence structure, the main verb often works harder than all the attendant nouns and modifiers.

Think about the sentence, “She ate eggs, toast and fruit.” In this simple sentence, a single verb describes an action taken on three separate objects. That’s a lot of work for one little word to do.

It is important, then, that the crucial main verb in a sentence be a strong one whenever possible. In a previous column, we examined the concept of strong and weak verbs. To review, the strongest verbs describe a dynamic action. “Cooked,” “danced” and “fluttered” are examples of simple past forms of strong, active verbs.

The weakest verbs describe states of being instead of actions. Conjugations of the verbs “to be” and “to have” are generally weak verbs. Thus, writing, “She had eggs, toast and fruit,” is weaker than writing, “She ate eggs, toast and fruit.” “Ate” is stronger than “had” because it is active.

There is a middle ground of interesting verbs that describe states of being instead of actions. “Yearned” and “desired” are good examples of interesting verbs. Both are stronger than their counterpart, “wanted,” because they amplify of the state of being implied by the weaker verb.

Here, then, is the source of the rumor about cutting “was” and “had.” Conjugations of “to be” and “to have,” when standing alone, are weak verbs in a powerful sentence slot. Of course, they are not the only culprits. Let’s look at some examples.

“We took a walk by the lake.”

In this sentence, the word “walk” is functioning as a noun. The word “took” occupies the main verb slot. If you want to strengthen the sentence, change it to:

“We walked by the lake.”

“He had a fight with the bartender”
“He fought with the bartender.”

“She was full of hope for a call from Billy”
“She hoped for a call from Billy”
or, by amplifying the verb,
“She yearned for a call from Billy.”

These may not be brilliant sentences, but they illustrate the point. Do you see how the revised sentences are stronger because verb is stronger? Obviously, there will be times that this particular edit does not apply, but as a general rule, stronger verbs lead to better sentences.

Because “was” and “had,” standing alone, are conjugations of weak verbs, many writers embark on search and destroy missions to eliminate these two words. But “was” and “had” do not always stand alone. Both are needed to form other verb tenses--tenses that are necessary in sentences describing actions in sequence.

When The “Was” Rumor Is Wrong

Let’s start with participles. The past progressive tense is generally formed by adding “-ing” to the end of a verb, and “was” or “were” before it. For example, the past progressive of “to walk” is (singular) “was walking” or (plural) “were walking.” This verb tense is used to describe an ongoing action that is paired with a discrete act. Confused? Let’s look at an example:

“She was walking by the lake when the bomb exploded.”

The action of walking is ongoing, and the explosion is a discrete event that occurs while the walking is occuring. In order for the sequence of events to make sense to the reader, the participial form of the verb--with the dreaded “was”--is necessary. If you switch the past participle for the simple past, you get:

“She walked by the lake when the bomb exploded.”

This sentence is less clear because the timing sequence is not as precise. Did the walk lead to the explosion, or the explosion lead to the walk? Were the two events simultaneous?

When The “Had” Rumor Is Wrong

Now let’s look at past perfect. The past perfect tense is generally formed by placing “had” in front of the simple past form of a verb. So, the past perfect of “to ask” is “had asked.” This verb tense is used to describe events that occur prior to events in the simple past. Again, this definition is confusing, so let’s look at an example that might take place at a wedding reception:

He wanted to dance with her, but when he had asked her at the rehearsal dinner, she had said, “Not likely.”

It’s a clumsy sentence but it illustrates the point. The wedding rehearsal occurs before the wedding reception. If we use the simple past in the main body of the narrative--as we do in most fiction--then the past perfect is needed to keep the timeline straight.

Look at what happens when we edit out “had” from our wedding reception scene:

He wanted to dance with her, but when he asked her at the rehearsal, she said, “Not likely.”

Even with the temporal reference to the rehearsal, this sentence feels disjointed. The time sequencing is slightly off because of the incorrect verb tense. To my eyes, the edited sentence reads as if the entire thing takes place at the rehearsal. The version with the past perfect makes it clear that wanting to dance is placed in the time of the wedding reception, and asking and answering is placed in the time of the rehearsal.

As always, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, simple conjugations of “to be” and “to have” are appropriate (as in this sentence--“are” is a form of “to be”).


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.
Redlines Ten (on backstory and narrative compression) can be found here.
Redlines Eleven (on parsing and pitching) can be found here.



Dave Shaw said...

I'm going to save the link to this post to pull out for the next newbie in our crit group who jumps on someone's valid use of those words. Thanks, Theresa! :-D

P.S. Oh, dear, either you really have no time at all, or you found a lot to rip apart in my poor little pitch... ;-)

Natalie Hatch said...

Now you know I'm going to religiously go through my ms looking for was and had and see whether I can find stronger words to use. By the end of this I'm going to have a ripsnoter!
Thank you for going through these I am learning a hell of a lot.

Natalie Hatch said...

oops I meant ripsnorter...

Whirlochre said...

These little words are the make-up artistes for a whole range of prima donnas. You just have to watch they don't get out of control and smear their lipstick over everyone.

Great post.

Courtney Milan said...

All of this is right, but I want to just say that this is only a general rule. You want a weak verb when the action isn't the point of the sentence.

E.g., "The diagnosis was positive. She had breast cancer."

When you want your verb to get out of the way, use was and had. Stronger verbs--e.g., replacing "had" with "suffered from" only take emotional real estate away from the focus of the sentences.

I think I would rephrase the general rule thusly: Use strong words to capture the emotional center of your sentence. The emotional center is often the verb.

Kimber Li said...

Whoa, this is a scary blog! And definitely one I'd better explore. I'll go bookmark it now.

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Wasn't he was the one who had said he had been had? :D

I like my had's. To excess, I'm sure. Seriously, great post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

One of the countless how-to-write books I own argues for putting things in simple past rather that past perfect to make your sentences stronger--even when it's not exactly correct from a temporal standpoint.

Rather than:

"The campfire was burning and we were toasting marshmellows when Vincent began to tell a ghost story."

They argue for:

"The campfire burned. We toasted marshmellows. Vincent began to tell a ghost story."

I wish I could remember which book it was so I could get the example right. I've seen writers I admire (e.g., Jonathan Kellerman) pull it off. It's something I've tried in my own writing--usually with awkward results.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, your pitch is fine. My schedule sucks. We'll get to it, I promise. We still have to look at the questions people asked for the last pitch, then we'll do yours.

CM, there was a blog post somewhere, sometime, about how to focus sentences and load impact into particular parts of the sentence.

Adrian, that example screams Hemingway to me. It's got that same highly stylized, almost staccato feel.

OK, enough fun time. It's back to work for me now. ;)


Dave Shaw said...

I wasn't trying to pressure you, Theresa, just making a little joke. Sorry if I pulled your leg off. I understand about time - my day job's been eating me alive lately.

I also thought of Hemingway when I read that. Very distinctive style.

Edittorrent said...

Let's say I'm doing a flashback. Okay, not me (I hate flashbacks with a bloody passion) but someone else is doing a flashback.

So there's the time of the book, done in simple past, and then there's the time of the flashback, the deeper past, which would usually be done in past perfect (had).

Okay, Theresa et al, would you take "had" all the way through the flashback? If not, where would you start going with past?
Here's an example start:

Luke remembered that day clearly. He had been trying out for the football team, and he had not been too optimistic. He'd always been small for his age, and slow too. But he had been working out all summer....

Would you stick with past perfect all the way through his flashback of meeting the new coach? Or ...?

Edittorrent said...

That last comment was me. Alicia, I mean. The Alicia part of my personality. :)

Edittorrent said...

Not if the passage is long. I'd use the past perfect as a transition in and out of a long flashback.

Sorry, Dave, but my sense of humor has not been seen since Monday. I filed a missing humor report, but police investigators said they have bigger crimes to solve and maybe it will come home on its own.