The sneaky “there was” and writing filler & crutches

I was going over a piece I had written when I found this seemingly innocuous sentence: “He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told that there was a group of Chinese civilians, around twenty, that was coming in their direction.” I usually do two or three proofings of the stuff I write, and this is why the second one is so important, to catch stuff like that.

Now, the sentence may not be awful, but it made me cringe a bit because I felt I heard it scream something like “I have been written by an amateur! Come and take a look!” Without much effort, I rewrote it into this:

“He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told them a group of twenty Chinese civilians was coming their way.”

Now, I changed a few things, like removing all the unnecessary “that,” the unspecified number of people, and replacing the cumbersome “that was coming in their direction” to “was coming their way,” but the mistake I want to talk about was the “there was,” as in “there was a group of Chinese…”

Here are other sentences I fixed: “There was no time for his plan to be put in motion because…” into “His plan was not put in motion because…”. ” There was still the problem of the river, but he was confident that would be solved,” into “The river was still a problem, but he knew they would solve it eventually,”

And here are two examples from a published novel in my favorite genre of books when I need to pick random sentences: Nightbringer by the prolific Graham MacNeill, set in the Warhammer 40K.

He staggered after his men, casting a quick glance over his shoulder. There was no one else following them down the street, which surprised him…” -> “Nobody was following them down the street, which surprised him…”

Three of his men had died on the alien ship and there was a blood price to be paid for their deaths” -> “Three of his men had died on the alien ship, and a blood price would be paid for their deaths.”

Pick your favorite genre novels and flick through them. Eventually, you will find sentences like those, and improving them is a great way to level up your writing finesse.

I have proofread a fair number of short stories, mostly written by beginners, and the “there was” clutch is in the top 4 or 5 most common (or most important,) but it also creeps in a lot of professional works. By the way, they are not mistakes in the sense of being ungrammatical; it’s a matter of style and quality.

I have looked up online to see if other people have mentioned this but it’s hard to find anything since almost everything I find is blog posts about not mixing up”there was/were,” which I find completely baffling, at least for native speakers. I did find a post, and although the author’s explanation is correct, one of the examples is puzzling. She gives this as the incorrect version:

“There was a large wart on the scary old lady’s chin.”

and the improved as  “A large wart sprouted hair on the scary old lady’s chin.”

And although the idea is good, the implementation is a bit of a flub. I actually prefer the incorrect version. And that’s a point I wanted to make, not just about the subject of this post but about the set of “writing tips/errors” posts in general. Even the best rule can be misapplied and almost all rules have exceptions. ‘There was’ is sometimes adequate, if not required.

So what’s the problem with ‘there was’ anyway? It’s an empty verb that takes useful space. It’s a entire clause, in fact. It only states the existence or presence of something, usually in/on somewhere. It is a crutch used by writers mostly due to how easy it is to write it. There was a pot on the table, there was a man in the room, there was a lever on the wall, there was a hat on his head, there was no way that, etc.

In most cases, however, the expression can be replaced with active verbs that state not only that something exists, but what it’s doing. ‘There was’ also occupies precious space, and amateur texts always fell like they are running out of sentence and paragraph space. See this surprisingly common example: “There was a man in the room. The man was singing.”

You may use a comma or a less stiff arrangement, but the basic idea is the same: you are using two units of space for what could be written in one: “The/man was signing in the room.”

Any action verb already presupposes existence, so you usually don’t need to state that, indeed, there is something somewhere. ‘There was’ takes the precious space that could have been used by a more specific verb, which means that the important verb that actually tells you what is going on will have to either become an appendage to it, or go live alone in his own sentence, which may explain the fractured, telegraphic feeling a lot of texts written by novices have. Something like “There was X in Y,” followed by many sentences, each explaining something about the situation or the X or the Y, instead of a more fluid two or so sentence-long description where more than one idea is conveyed in each sentence.

Another example. “There were two men hiding behind the fried banana stall, shooting us with their weapons.” Again, not bad per se, but still -> “The two men were shooting us from behind the fried banana stall.”

Ctrl+f your (or other people’s) texts and you’ll probably find a lot of superfluous ‘there was/were’ or is/are if you are one of those weirdos who write in present tense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘there was’ is always wrong. You can write ‘there was a book on the table.’ You don’t have to rack your brain to find a circuitous way for saying that, indeed, there was a book on the table. There’s ‘lie’, as in “A book lay on the table,’ which is useful if you want to state that it ‘lay open’, but otherwise… there are not many ways to state that something is in a place doing, well, the being in the place and not much else. But with living things (or machinery) more is usually going on, and people do more than being in a place. They wobble because they are drunk, they pace, they yawn, they fidget, they look at you with murderous intent, and so on.

But what if the mere presence of X is the important bit? As with the book, then use ‘there was’. Imagine this: “The astronaut walked through the narrow and unlit corridors of the destroyed spaceship, and he reached the command room. There was a man without a spacesuit inside, and the man was singing.”

I believe that ‘there was’ is adequate there because what you want to focus on is the fact that, although there shouldn’t have, there was something in there. This effect is amplified by the impossibility of the man being without a space suit… and singing, although there is no air, so it should be impossible. If I had followed my previous advice and written “and reached the command room. Inside a man without a spacesuit was singing,” well, it’s OK, but it would lose some of its punch, I suspect. The scene is so weird that pointing out the presence of something with ‘there was’ helps to make the weirdness stand out.

And as a final thought, don’t replace ‘there was’ with what I believe may be worse: ‘he saw,’ (I did that in one of my examples, but I believe it worked there.) Protagonists are all the times ‘sawing‘ things in books. But really, if you state that something is there, it’s almost always implied that the protagonist sees it since most narrators are not totally omniscient and what they describe is what the protagonist sees. So don’t say “And he saw a book on the table” or, worse, “and he saw that there was a book on the table.” There was a book on the table is fine.

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