The Past Progressive Pit of Doom (republished)

Douglas Phillips  
It was snowing outside, but with nowhere to go I was staying indoors. I was writing. Poorly, it turns out because while I was looking for joy, I was finding only despair. I was using too many past progressives.

This blog post was originally published on Critique Circle in the year 2020

The Past Progressive Pit of Doom

It was snowing outside, but with nowhere to go I was staying indoors. I was writing. Poorly, it turns out because while I was looking for joy, I was finding only despair. I was using too many past progressives.

Do you see this in your writing? (Full disclosure, I have. Hopeful note, I’m getting better.)

It’s called the past progressive and it’s formed from the verb “to be” (am, are, was, were), plus a second verb, plus “-ing” slapped on the end for good measure. I was writing. I was finding. There’s also a present progressive and future progressive, but let’s focus on the past because that’s the verb tense most authors use. When I critique, past progressive is one of the most common mistakes I see. Sometimes it forms the first sentence of a chapter! Ugh.

Past progressive is a major turnoff for readers. Why? What’s wrong with progressive verbs? Nothing, grammatically speaking, but it’s weak writing and overused. Those “-ing” verbs get repetitive. All those “was” sentences get boring!

My personal theory: authors who write in past tense use the past progressive to make their narrative sound more like it’s happening now. If I write, John was searching for clues, we can see John rummaging through drawers and closets, whereas if I write, John searched for clues, he’s done! Didn’t find a thing. No drama there.

There are legitimate uses of the progressive tense, but only when it’s important to distinguish that an event is ongoing. Otherwise, try to reduce your use. If you do, you’ll discover two benefits: your vocabulary will expand, and you’ll create more interesting passages for readers. John scoured the room for clues. That’s better, right?

Are you making this common mistake? Let’s find out. First, some data. I examined several submissions to Critique Circle to compute what I call the PPP, or Past Progressive Percentage and found it ranges from 0.1% to 0.9%. That is, text like “was xxx-ing” occurred about 18 times in a 2000-word chapter (in the worst case).*

Want to check your own work? If you use Microsoft Word, View the Navigation Pane, and click the down arrow at the end of the search bar. Pick Advanced Find. Turn on the checkbox for Wild Cards, then type the following text in the search bar: was ??ing . This will find 2-letter progressive cases like “was doing” or “was being”. Note the count of how many you found. Then add one more ? and search again. You’ll find cases like “was saying” or “was crying”. Add that number to your sum. Then add another ? and search again for cases like “was looking” or “was opening”. You get the picture. By the time you get to 10 or 11 question marks, you’ll have found all the possible progressives in your work.** Then, just sum the occurrences and divide by the total number of words in your document (Word displays this number in the Status bar at the bottom). That’s your personal PPP. If you’re down around 0.1% or 0.2%, congratulate yourself. Well done! If you’re above 0.5%, you’ve got some work to do. Seek out better words. Eliminate a few cases of “was”. Anything above 1.0% spells trouble, but at least you know about it now. In another blog post, I’ll take on another “-ing” issue: the present participle.

* I didn’t bother to search for “were xxx-ing” or “wasn’t xxx-ing” because these are less common and don’t really change the purpose of the parameter.

** This search should work in a single step, using was [A-z]{2,11}ing . Unfortunately, there’s a bug in Microsoft Word that causes this legitimate search expression to do the same thing as 11 question marks. I’ve notified Microsoft. So far, no answer.

19+ Comments


Hi, I seem to do that same thing so does my partner.

Mar-01 at 23:37


I think I do this, but unfortunately I can’t calculate my PPP with the Word search, as I use Google Docs. How do you do this in Docs?

Mar-02 at 02:12


I’m curious where your percentages come from. Who decided them? What if someone used a lot of descriptive language or adverbs or prep phrases to improve their percentages? Since it’s not only looking at verb usage. Unless you can divide by sentences? Or more accurately, clauses, but even harder to determine…

Mar-02 at 02:55


For me the past progressive is writing like I talk so my rough drafts are full it and they get weeded out with edits. I wonder about the wisdom of programmatically changing all of them though, how likely is it one would have a novel length manuscript without the legit use of past progressive in it somewhere?

Mar-02 at 03:21


I can’t help with Google Docs, but if you’re using the ‘novel’ feature of CC then you can look up the statistics and find the number of ‘-ing’ words.

This isn’t exactly the same as the PPP of course, and will also (I assume) count words like ‘sing’ and ‘bring’, but it can give an indication of whether there are high percentages overall or if a particular chapter is an outlier.

Mar-02 at 05:56


Unfortunately, I don’t have the novel feature on CC but I found out that the Hemingway Editor site/app has a feature where it highlights your passive voice use, which is good enough for my purposes. Thank you though!

Mar-02 at 19:22


was \b\w+?ing\b

Should do the trick on google docs

Mar-02 at 20:01


My percentage appears to be 0.00128 (I did it in a nearly 4,000 word chapter of a book I’m revising) which quite surprised me as I am fond of a was +ing from time to time.
But… I absolutely HATE it when people shoehorn in the simple past where it really should be the past continuous (progressive), because it just sounds silly. So there’s that side of it to be thought of too.
Having learnt my grammar via foreign languages (French, Latin and Ancient Greek) I was always taught that the imperfect (past continuous) was for unfinished actions, and the perfect (simple past) was for a completed and finished action in the past.
Yes, you can go through your work and excise some of these if there are too many, but as with all ‘rules’ they are more guidelines than rules and you should never seek to totally eradicate any of the things the ‘word police’ seem to think you should.
A good piece of writing has everything in moderation, so a few past continuous verbs cannot be avoided and shouldn’t be as in some cases they are absolutely essential to the composition of the story.
eg I was crossing the road when the car hit me. (corny example but I’m doing this late at night)
You absolutely cannot say -
I crossed the road when the car hit me.
and saying -
I crossed the road and the car hit me - is no better.
And there is a subtle differerence between - He sat on the chair and He was sitting on the chair, necessitating the use of was + ing if you want to imply it is an action going on for a long period of time and not a completed action of sitting down.
There is no absolute right way to write, but there are wrong ways, and ways to be avoided if possible. But when you start using maths to assess your writing you’re kind of leaving creativity behind. I don’t believe writing can be assessed via mathematical formulae, and if we reach that stage then no wonder they’re using AI to write nowadays. We’ll all end up sounding like our work has been written by a computer if we’re not careful.

Mar-02 at 21:41


Wish I knew. I’ve never used Google Docs. They would need a search bar that allowed special characters like ? (for any character A-Z) or * for any number of characters.

Mar-03 at 04:54


When I wrote this, I was critting (PP!) a lot more than I am now. I’d seen a LOT of chapters using this form and asked my editor about it. She gave me the rough idea of what is appropriate and what is not. The %s are my own numbers that represented her advice.

Mar-03 at 04:57


Yes, but of course that won’t find the past progressive. And a good thing too, IMO. Nothing wrong with the past progressive where it’s needed.

Like Flicka, I absolutely HATE HATE HATE it when authors use the simple past where it really should be the past continuous (progressive). I’m seeing it more and more frequently. It’s such a shame as it removes an important subtlety from our writing.

Mar-03 at 04:58


Definitely don’t remove them all! There are legitimate needs for this verb form. Please take this advice as “don’t overuse”. I added clarifying numbers only because I’m nerdish that way.

Mar-03 at 05:00


Roger that! Thanks for the clarification.

Mar-03 at 05:11


As it happens, I thought your opening sentence was perfect just as it was. I wouldn’t change any of those past progressives. It’s a perfect example of how that tense gives a feeling of continuance, and by using it several times, you’ve conveyed the sense of the snow feeling interminable.

I don’t feel like you explained why it’s bad, really. You said, “Past progressive is a major turnoff for readers. Why?” and then you don’t answer the question. You just say it’s weak writing without explaining why it’s weak (except maybe that your editor told you it is?).

Mar-03 at 05:13


As a Latin student, I do understand tenses and their uses. I find myself using past-progressive as default though, which is kinda Latin’s fault haha

Mar-05 at 23:51


I think we should blame all language faults on the Romans. :grinning:

Mar-06 at 03:44


I too learnt my grammar from the classics - both Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as French which is particularly pedantic about using correct tenses and even has one strictly for written work.

Mar-06 at 12:22


For that last regular expression, was [A-z]{2,11}ing, have you tried was [A-Za-z]{2,11}ing? Using A-z as a range seems a bit odd. Would depend on how the underlying regex engine implements ranges. ASCII and UTF-8 has upper-case before lower, but EBCDIC does not (though given that’s almost exclusively mainframes, I strongly suspect that’s not the issue) :slight_smile:

Mar-06 at 14:39


The actual regex would be
[Ww]as [A-Za-z][A-Za-z]*ing
This handles the (odd) case where Was is capitalized, excludes numbers, and searchs for 1 or more letters before the “ing”. And it works fine in Word.
EDIT: Actually the regex engine is a little lacking. It does NOT exclude numbers if they’re in the middle of the word, but numbers aren’t a likely scenario that needs strong logic to exclude. Still, seeing has they have a rock-solid regex engine in their development environments, it’s disappointing to see it fail on such a basic level here.

Mar-06 at 17:34
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