Aug 25, 2010

Was, Were, Could, Should & Would, (just to name a few)

I recently sent my novel to a few readers to get their take on how it stacked up against other books in the same genre. Some had rave reviews, but there was one that pulled out her tutoring hat and gave me a much needed lesson on "state-of-being" verbs. Man oh man, did I need that lesson.

I was already aware of my horrible habit of using "was" and "were," as in:

He was walking, instead of, He walked.

I'm pretty good at hitting the find and search key and highlighting those, but when I got the first few chapters of my current novel back and saw all the mistakes I still made in grammar, I was horrified.  Here's my problem:

I could feel his heart beating beneath my fingertips.
I could see the tiger from across the clearing.
I could hear the emotion in her voice.

Anyone laughing yet?  They should read:

I felt his heart beating beneath my fingertips.
I saw the tiger from across the clearing.
I heard the emotion in her voice.

Talk about amateur. I've since gone through the entire novel AGAIN and fixed all the mistakes I found. Hopefully my crit group will find the rest.  So, do you have a problem with "state-of-being" verbs. Here's a list, just in case you need them.

May, might, must, be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, do, does, did, should, could, would, have, had, has, will, can & shall.

Better go get them now before someone else finds them. It will save you a lot of embarrassment later.

I'm off to devour my dusty collection of grammar books. *sigh*


  1. Don't be too hard on yourself. I worked hard to get them out of my writing and lo and behold my editor sometimes puts them back in. I guess the rule to go by the writing clear? Plus look at some of the books you consider classics. You might be surprised what you find. :)

  2. I'm guilty as charged.
    BUT - i think it's ok sometimes. we just have to be careful. moderation in all things. :)

  3. Dang now I have to go fix my chapters. Thanks.

  4. I think Kathi's guideline is perfect—go for clarity. If the stative verb (a category that includes verbs like "believe," "know" and "seem") really adds something to the meaning, leave it in!

    For example, there's a big difference between saying, "I could go to the store" and "I am going to the store." (Of course, in the past, that's "I could've gone to the store" and "I went to the store," which is an even bigger difference ;) .)

    Oh, and the past progressive "He was walking" can be useful every once in a while. My favorite example is "He was leaning against the wall when she came in." If you change it to simple past, "He leaned against the wall when she came in," it sounds like she comes in, then he leans against the wall in response. It's ambiguous at best.

    Good luck with revisions!

  5. I think Kathi is right. Don't worry too much, go for clarity. I noticed them, but since I knew you had someone editing for you I just overlooked them. Try not to feel too bad--everyone makes these kinds of mistakes.

    My biggest "word weeds" (Like that phrase?) are 'has' and 'had'. I'm always pulling those out.