The Double-Was, or How To Be Sexy
Hello Sexy Grammarian,
It’s 3AM, I can’t sleep, and my mind is playing with a question I can’t put to bed. So here I am, writing to beg your input in the continuing question of writing informally with style.
For years, one sentence I read has stood out as the epitome of bad writing to me, so much so I still remember it more than 5 years later.
To wit: “What she mostly was was tired.”
I realize there are times in any writer’s life in which they must honor an informal narrator’s voice. However, I’ve always found this sentence kind of unreadable. The double “was” is a little beastie that ambushes me mid-sentence and causes me to re-read again and again in wondering debate: editing error or intentional informality?
Were I to rewrite said sentence, I might opt for the following:
“More than anything, she was tired. Bone tired.”
I feel this honors the sentiment, while preserving both the readability and the informal tone.
So here’s my question: what is your opinion of the double “was”? Is there any grammar violation here? What guidance do you offer us about how to most agilely walk the line between an informal tone and readability?
Wide eyed and waiting,
Desperately Seeking Style
My beloved DSS:
Thank you for offering this question and with it, an opportunity for me to talk about style, grammar, and one of the least sexy verb constructions in our language, to be. You are absolutely correct to call that double was a beastie. What’s worse than one un-sexy verb in a sentence? A repeated un-sexy verb in a sentence.
All that said, it’s true that this sentence stands up to a basic grammar test. Let’s dissect:
The subject: What she mostly was
The predicate: was (the second one)
The object: tired
First, is the sentence grammatically correct? It is. With a simple sentence like this one–one awkward subject, a one-verb predicate, and a clear object–it’s tough to get it wrong. But that doesn’t make it right.
Because it’s not right to make your readers stumble, to force them to read a sentence twice, or cause them to trouble over your structure at 3AM. I suggest avoiding awkward sentences, however grammatically correct and however informal you want to sound.
So what can we do with this one? I like your solution just fine, DSS. But I might approach it differently.
The red flag in this sentence ends up, when we dissect it, in both the subject and the predicate–double red flags! Let’s tackle them one at a time:
The subject: I like your choice to take the acting person in the sentence, she, and make her the clear subject. When revising, scan for all the nouns and audition them as potential subjects. Eligible nouns in this sentence include: she and tired. Since tired might also serve as an adjective to get this point across, let’s stick with she.
The predicate: Even if we stripped this sentence down to its bare bones and wrote, She was tired, we’d still have a boring verb on our hands. Anytime I see a sentence that uses a form of to be, I consider revising, not to correct grammar or even avoid awkwardness necessarily. Avoid forms of the verb to be because there are thousands of sexier verbs at your disposal!
So, she’s mostly tired. Thanks for telling us. Could you maybe show her doing something that would communicate her exhaustion? Without knowing the context of this sentence, I’m forced to imagine what else is going on besides the mostly tired, but the original writer has all kinds of information available.
Perhaps it is that she is interested and polite but mostly tired. Then you might find a few sexy verbs to use:
She sat erect and clutched her pen, but mostly, her eyelids drooped and her attention wandered.
Of course, I assume way too much with this solution, but the point is that this sentence that bothers you so, DSS, when we deconstruct it the way an editor does, tells us very little with a lot of unnecessary words. More likely, the best solution tacks the adjectival phrase mostly tired onto another adjacent sentence, like this:
Mostly tired, she struggled to explain her state of being.
Or how about throwing it into some dialogue?
“How are you?” I asked.
“Tired, mostly,” she answered.
So, DSS, to preserve sentiment, whether writing a formal report or an an informal note, I advise merciless dissection and careful consideration of verb choice, mostly.
The Sexy Grammarian
Post Script: You made imperfect use of the idiom to wit here, DSS. Since a question about its use came up in comments just the other day, I will use you as an example. In the case above, I might have used, here’s the sentence.From Old English witan and the Germanic wissen, to wit means that is to say, so using it to introduce your example of a beastie of a sentence is not quite right. Rather, use it to say something another way: Today is the first day of summer, to wit, the summer solstice.