Passive Voice Unmasked

www.suecoletta.com/ways-to-tighten-our-writingI’ve come across so many posts on passive voice, and many get it wrong.  Just this week, a writer was teaching (or trying to) other writers how to edit and remove passive voice from their novels — and she used an example of ACTIVE voice as what to cut.  As most of you know, kindness, constructive, and polite comments are best.  No one likes to get it wrong.  So I tried as politely as I could to steer her in the right direction. She moderated my comment.  Oh, well.

But her post got me thinking. How many writers will take her advice and mercilessly cut every word they think is passive?  This would be a travesty, leaving empty shells of a stories everywhere.  Writing is art. We use words to evoke responses and lead our reader where we want them to go. If we only concentrate on perfect grammar, our storytelling will suffer. That said, we should use active voice as much as possible unless it will ruin the scene, or you’re using passive for a specific reason.

What is the passive voice?  

Passive voice takes the transitive verb and changes the object to the subject.  That’s it.  That’s all we’ve feared since day one.  If you’re like me, I learn better from examples than technical mumbo-jumbo.  Since everyone uses the poor cat in their examples I will do the same.

I kicked the cat.  Active voice.  Subject (I) >> transitive verb (kicked) >> object (cat).

The cat was kicked.  Passive voice.  Subject (cat)<< transitive verb in passive voice (was kicked).

See how the transitive verb reversed the object (cat) and made it the subject?  Now we know it’s passive voice.

Let’s break it down.

The passive voice always includes a transitive verb in past participle form: “was kicked.”

 

Now here’s where it gets tricky…

I was kicking the cat.

This is active voice, not passive.  Why?  Because the verb “kicking” did not change the object “cat”.  More importantly, the action is ongoing: “was kicking.”

Just because you see the word “was” does not necessarily make it passive.  This is where a lot of confusion lies.  Many fear using “was”, thinking it will automatically turn the sentence into passive voice.  This simply isn’t true.  For instance, the girl who wrote the post that led to this one informed all her followers if the word “was” is in the sentence, it’s passive voice.  Tsk, tsk, tsk. Can you imagine trying to write an entire novel without the word “was”? But that’s what she advised.

Let’s try another one…

The cat was fearful.

This looks like passive voice, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  Why? “Was” in this case is a linking verb.

Linking verbs are neither active or passive.  They simply link to the verb (called a compliment when using linking verbs). Linking verbs walk alone, unlike helping verbs, which come before another verb. i.e. “was kicking”.  Linking verbs usually follow the compliment (a noun, pronoun, or adjective that refers to or describes, or means the same as, the subject).

Examples of linking verbs are:

The dog was hungry.

He seemed angry.

John is married.

Examples of linking verbs:  have, am, is, are, were, become, had, seemed, should be, have been.

Still with me?  Let’s try another one.

I had kicked the cat.

Anyone?  Anyone? Active voice.  The subject “I” didn’t flip to the object “cat”.  Anytime you see “had” or a form of “to have” as the only helper verb, you don’t have the passive voice.

There was no reason to kick the cat.

Active.  “There was” is a dummy phrase (it doesn’t describe anyone or anything) used to complete the sentence.  It’s neither the subject nor the object.  Therefore, the object “cat” didn’t change.

The cat became angry.

“Became” is another linking verb.  The subject “cat” didn’t change.  Not passive.

The cat was angry.

This looks passive, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  It’s another linking verb. When you only have one linking verb it’s not passive.  You need two linking verbs to make it passive.  Bear in mind there are exceptions to every rule.

Is the passive voice always the enemy?

No.  Sometimes you want to conceal who the culprit is/was, or the narrator doesn’t know. In mystery writing, thrillers, or crime fiction in general, sometimes the passive voice can enhance the suspense.  “The bracelets were stolen.”  You could say, “Someone stole the bracelets.”  But then the reader would concentrate on the “someone” rather than the crime “stolen”. Basically, you have to judge what you want your reader to concentrate on in the scene. Maybe you want them to wonder who the “someone” is. In that case, use the latter example.

For those of you who use The Elements of Style as your writing Bible,  Strunk and White used four examples of passive voice. Three of which aren’t passive.  You can check it out here, but I’ll mention them below, too.

The three examples in questions…

“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.”

“It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had said.”

“The reason that he left for college was that his health became impaired.”

In which example does the subject change to the object?  None.  And yet, you can find this all over the web and in study guides.

 

I hope this helps you to understand the passive voice the way it helped me.  You can’t rely solely on your proofreader to fix your writing.  Proofreader/editing programs don’t always catch passive voice.

Note: I purposefully didn’t get into auxiliary verbs so this post wouldn’t get too complicated.  One way to remember why a sentence is in the passive form is to create a sentence that explains how it occurs.  Something like: “Stop her!  She’s trying to steal the object and disguise it as the subject.”

An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by Zombies” to the end of the sentence. If it still makes sense, it’s passive.

“The cat was kicked by Zombies.”

“He was attacked by Zombies.”

“The women were murdered by Zombies.”

Cool trick, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Oh, and a hint I love that helps unmask many instances of passive voice: If you can add “by zombies” to the end of the sentence, it’s in passive voice. The principle behind this tip is that in a passive sentence the person/object who is performing the action is not included. So: The cat was kicked [by zombies]. Note that adding this phrase to any of the active examples, including the sentences mistakenly labeled as passive, results in nonsense.

    • I love that tip, too, Linda. “By zombies” has been floating around for a while. But at the time I wrote this post I hadn’t heard it. One of these days I’ll get around to updating posts more than a year old. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Wonderful post–urgently needed. So much confusion exists around this topic. Your explanation is thorough and easy to understand. I’ll be clipping this post to my Evernote files. Thank you!

    P.S. In the sentence “The passive voice always includes a transitive verb in past particle form: “was kicked,” I believe “particle” should be “participle.” 🙂

  3. Gosh, it’s tough. I think now I can just tell by how it sounds in my head. If it seems like it’s ‘arse about face,’ then I think, passive. I don’t think that would work as an actual teaching technique, though…lol I’m probably wrong most times, but at least I start thinking and analysing it ( I also use that, the rat was eaten by the cat, type example)

    • I’m betting you’re probably right most of the time. A lot of it, for those who look for passive voice, is instinctual. The words leap right out at you. Sounds to me like you’ve got a good handle on it. You know what they say, practice makes perfect. 🙂 Although it’s probably not a good teaching technique it would be pretty funny to hear in a classroom setting, and I bet the students would never forget that lesson. lol

  4. Great post! And it really helped clear up the confusion regrading “active vs. passive” writing.

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