Participles in Progressive Tenses
I’d like to begin by pointing out a common mistake: that all constructions using certain helping verbs (am, is, are, was, were) are passive. This is not the case. Many participle constructions also contain uses of these words but are not passive. For example:
It was going over there.
The above construction uses the participle phrase “It was going over” to create the past progressive verb tense. This is an active construction. “It” is acting (going over there), not being acted upon. A passive equivalent of the sentence would be:
It was being taken over there.
See the difference? In the first example, “it was going” is different than “it was being taken” (by someone).
However, this kind of construction does weaken the prose when used without a simple verb tense construction to play against. Using “It was over there” on its own weighs down the prose. However, if you anchor it with a simple tense adverbial clause using “when,” “while,” “as,” “since,” “because,” and the like, you create a reference point that makes the progressive relevant:
It was going over there when I last checked.
Just like with passive voice, use progressive tenses sparingly … but don’t cut them out completely. There is a place for both. You just have to know how to use them and do so with purpose.
Now, a Bit of Advice on Passive Voice
If you’ve done any amount of writing and received any reasonable amount of feedback, you’ve received at least some advice about the so-called evils of passive voice. “Never use it,” many will say. Real writers use only strong, “active” prose.
Well, I’m here to tell you there is a place for passive voice. Beyond technical writing and scientific papers, which typically call for enough passive voice use to make any hater’s head spin, there are a handful of instances where passive voice is warranted. (See what I just did there?) ;-)
These are the most relevant examples:
· When the object doesn’t need mentioning or would create redundancy:
· The papers had already been corrected.
· When the subject is unknown:
· The bathroom was occupied.
· When you want to focus on the object more than the subject:
· The fire had been started by an arsonist.
· When you want to pull your readers in to a character’s feeling of helplessness or lack of control:
· Her hands had been tied behind her back.
· When you want to add a deceptive tone to the prose:
· He swore he was nowhere nearby when the car was stolen.
While you might have readers who also do not know the rules, there is always a chance that editors, agents, or reviewers reading your work do. If you take the time to know and understand these rules, your writing will be sharper and you will be able to present it to the world with confidence and skill.
Until next time, my pretties! (Insert evil cackle.)