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Past progressive (imperfect) vs. passive

Our verb series continues!

Think of the differences between these examples:

She was crying. She cried.
He entered the room. She leaned toward the door, eavesdropping. He entered the room. She was leaning toward the door, eavesdropping.
He smiled at her. He was smiling at her. He was still smiling.

There are lots of books and websites out there that will tell you that the verb “was” and the construct “was [verb]ing” is passive voice. It’s not.

Can I repeat that? The construct “was [verb]ing” is NOT passive voice.

The passive voice means that the actor is not in the subject position. Instead, the thing acted upon is in the subject position. Most people can identify this:

Passive (obvious): The conversation was heard by him.

Passive (sneakier): The conversation was heard.

Active: He heard the conversation.

Note here, too, that the passive voice isn’t past tense. It’s also seen in the present tense (and all the others): The conversation is/will be/would be/could be/might be heard by him.

There are sometimes occasions when the passive voice is called for, or even necessary—to conceal the actor, or if the POV character doesn’t know who the actor is. But mostly the passive voice is awkward and thus to be avoided. (Catch the passive in there?)

The construct “was [verb]ing” is the past progressive (or imperfect) tense. (Again, it’s NOT the passive voice.) Compare the examples at the beginning of this post. How does “She was crying” differ from “She cried”? To me, “she was crying” means tears were falling. “She cried” is most likely a speech tag. If not, it almost seems like she’s done crying. Maybe my Spanish training is showing here, but can I just clarify that this is the preterite?

Note that the past progressive is necessary to show an ongoing action in the past. In the second example, when does the leaning start? In “He entered the room. She leaned . . .” the simple past tense (preterite) can indicate consecutive actions—he walks in, then she leans. In “He entered the room. She was leaning . . .” the progressive shows an ongoing action that began before the simple past action—he walks in and finds her already leaning. If you really hate the imperfect, you can rephrase this as “He found her leaning against the door, eavesdropping, when he walked in the room,” or some such.

The third example, “He smiled/was smiling/was still smiling” might have a few more shades in it. When I picture these, I see someone break into a smile for “He smiled.” “He was smiling” show someone already grinning. “He was still smiling” is a bit more specialized—we’ve already seen him begin to smile (or just smiling) . . . and he’s still at it. (Don’t you wish he’d stop?)

When using a “was [verb]ing,” be sure it’s on purpose, to generate a specific effect—and don’t overuse it, or it kills that effect. If that’s why you’re using it, and it seems to be working, don’t let anyone bully you out of it, especially if they claim it’s “passive.”

What are some other good uses for past progressive tense and passive voice?
Let me know!

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4 Responses to Past progressive (imperfect) vs. passive

  1. Marnee says:

    Ok, I love love your verb series so far. I loved the intransitive/transitive lesson and I love this passive/past progressive entry.

    Very useful information! Thanks Jordan!

  2. Jordan says:

    Thank you, Marn!

  3. Annette says:

    Thank you! I hear no end of “was -ing” being passive voice, and that claim drives me crazy.

  4. Thank you. Passive voice is the thing I struggle with the most. Now I am going to worry wether that sentence IS passive! I’m bookmarking your page now.


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