This comes up so often that I feel the need to address it, because otherwise I might punch someone.

Was, in and of itself, isn’t passive.


Was can weaken your writing if overly used (just like anything that’s overly used), but just the sign of it doesn’t mean your sentence is passive.

Passive is a grammatical term that means something was done to the subject.

  • Bob was running. – not passive.
  • Sue was knocked over by a pack of wild dingos. – passive.

Why is the second passive and not the first?  Because in the first, nothing is being done to Bob; Bob is the one doing the action.  In the second, however, Sue is the grammatical subject, but she’s not doing the action; that’s the dingos (which are a prepositional phrase modifying the verb).

Now, I’m not saying that “Bob was running” is a great sentence.  But it’s not actually wrong, in some cases.
Everyone knows about the three main tenses in English – past, present, and future (and if not, read this).  But there are actually fourteen tenses.
When talking we tend to use them well enough, but when it comes to writing it sometimes falls apart, especially if you’re critiquing and don’t know when each should be used.  And that’s when the passive charge comes in.  People see that was verb in there, specifically with the progressive tenses, and immediately think it’s wrong.
I know all this because I had to teach it to high school kids, as well as know the correct verb forms in French and Russian (they’re similar but not exactly the same).  If grammar makes your head swim, look it up.  There are tons of great resources on the web.  Or learn a foreign language.  Volunteer to tutor students.
But please, for the love of God, don’t assume that was is always passive and must be exorcised from your writing.

1 Comment

  1. I did go through a phase of trying to avoid was, but now I’m just aware of its best uses instead (I hope.) It’s totally unnatural to try and write it out completely – sometimes a big fat was is necessary. I must confess my eyes glaze over when I try to ‘learn’ grammar, but I think I have an intuitive grasp of it mostly. Except for commas. Damn them to hell!

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