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Could someone please tell me if it would sound better if I replaced was with got in the text below?

In the Vietnam War, Bob Walker had been a helicopter mechanic, and he’d watched as his best friend was decapitated by an incoming helicopter’s propeller blade.

Source : The Verge

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Either is fine. My gut check as a native speaker says that in your sentence, was sounds more detached, removed from the action, while got is more immediate.

I say this as someone who has to write about violent trauma as part of their job: I would never use got decapitated in a formal report unless I was quoting a witness who said that, because it's bad enough having to read these things to begin with, the last thing I want is to increase the immediacy of the description for whomever the poor person having to read it is (sometimes myself in the future) and possibly vicariously traumatize them (even worse). I want my text to be as unemotional and sterile as possible, and to leave any emotional impact in the content of the words themselves.

If I'm writing fiction, and I want to increase intensity for the reader, I might very well use got decapitated.

The choice is yours.

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2  
+1 An interesting and I think accurate take; though I suggest that the get passive is more immediate because it is, as Vic says, more colloquial, and therefore brings the reader/hearer into a more personal relationship with the facts recited. –  StoneyB May 3 at 21:33
1  
@StoneyB yes, that was my thought too. I think part of what make the formal, formal is that it is not everyday speech, it is not what we're used to hearing, and that gives it a touch of the alien, the special, the liminal. That is where its coldness and impersonality comes from. In my own personal writing (e.g. blogging) I manipulate levels of formality heavily, precisely to exploit these effects. –  Codeswitcher May 3 at 21:42

The passive voice is normally formed with the verb 'to be" and the past participle, but we can use the verb "to get" instead of the verb "to be" in everyday speech when we talk about things that happen by accident or unexpectedely.So, here it would sound better to use "get"

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I also agree that 'was' and 'got' are the difference between formalism and colloquial usage, with 'got' being something that would be spoken, while 'was' would more likely be written.

However, I disagree with the usage of 'get' in any form given the original sentence of "..and he'd watched as his best friend get decapitated by an incoming..."

The only way that would sound correct would be an alteration of the sentence to, "...and he watched his best friend get decapitated by an incoming..." I would have posted this as a comment, however, I apparently need 50 points to do so.

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