Once upon a time, a writing teacher, editor, or other pundit taught a writer to avoid the passive voice—sentences in which the apparent subject is being acted on rather than acting. (For example, “The dog was walked by me.”) Passive voice, the pundit said, weakens your writing and makes it sound clunky and pedantic. Go for strong, active verbs.
This, in itself, is good advice.
However, perhaps because the student was slow to understand, the pundit then proposed a shortcut to rooting out passive sentences: Look for “was” and “were” and get rid of them. The writer then shared this advice with every other writer she knew, until a whole generation of writers (especially, it seems, in CBA) grabbed hold of the firm belief that “was” and “were” are to be avoided at all costs.
This is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
In fact, the verb “to be,” even in its past tense forms of “was” and “were,” has many legitimate uses. For one thing, passive voice itself is not always the worst way to frame a sentence. Take, for example, the last part of the sentence above: “‘Was’ and ‘were’ are to be avoided at all costs.” Here, the verb “to avoid” has no clear implied performer. One could write, “one must avoid ‘was’ and ‘were’ at all costs,” but Americans tend to find the use of “one” stuffy. Or one could write, “writers must avoid . . . ,” but in my opinion, the passive construction here puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the words themselves which ought to be avoided.
(A handy way to tell when passive voice may be okay: If your passive sentence makes perfect sense without a “by _____” phrase to indicate who is performing the action, it may be okay. If it needs a “by _____” phrase, turn that sentence around and make ______ the subject.)
I will say, however, that in fiction—which is my primary subject here—the passive voice is rarely the best choice.
But even if you have a zero-tolerance policy toward the passive voice, the verb “to be” performs any number of other useful functions in our language. In this post you may find many instances where I use it as a linking verb—linking a subject to a predicate that explains it. (For example: “This is good advice.”) Expository writing and description would be lost without this usage.
(Parenthetically, I have heard this usage of “to be” referred to as “telling rather than showing.” That is a gross oversimplification. The distinction between telling and showing cannot be reduced to the use of certain words. Admittedly, even in description, stronger verbs are better where possible; but let us not demonize “to be” as a “telling” verb.)
Another helpful use is that of helping verb. The past imperfect tense, in which an action is ongoing in the past, requires the use of “was” or “were.” For example, “I was running down the road when I tripped over a dog.” Overzealous eradicators of “was” will frequently advise writers to get rid of the past imperfect in their writing. But if you write, “I ran down the road when I tripped over the dog,” not only does it not convey the original sense, it could be taken to mean the order of events was reversed: I ran down the road after tripping over the dog.
The past imperfect is a fine and useful tense. It conveys more immediacy than the simple past and is necessary to describe, as above, one action interrupting another. Please, oh please, do not throw it out!
“Was” and “were” are also required with the past participle, as in “the order of events was reversed” above. That phrase looks like a passive tense, but in fact it isn’t, because there is no conceivable performer of the action “to reverse.” In French or Russian, you would say the equivalent of “it reversed itself.”
To sum up the more common uses of “to be”:
- Nasty, evil passive voice: “The dog was walked by me.”
- Acceptable passive voice: “The walking of dogs is not permitted here.”
- Linking verb: “The dog was a mutt.”
- Past imperfect: “I was walking the dog when I saw the ‘No dogs’ sign.”
- Past participle: “I was embarrassed that I had broken the law.”
Questions? Bring ’em on!