What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

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We’ve all heard the writing advice, “Avoid passive voice,” but many writers seem to be confused about what passive voice really means. Rather than waste time demonizing “was” and “is” writers need to know what passive voice really is and when to use it correctly. (Yes, there is a place for it!)

What is Passive Voice anyway?

I’m a member of several Facebook writing groups. In one of these groups, members like to post two sentences and ask which one sounds better. I find this practice to be useless, since, without the surrounding context, it’s impossible to determine which sentence works best. At its worst, this has inspired lengthy commentary of compounding bad advice that, if heeded, would lead an unsuspecting writer down a horrible path.

One of these recent discussions was a writer asking for advice on rewriting her sentence in active voice.

The room was cold and drafty.

This isn’t passive voice.

The verb was/is does not automatically mean the sentence is in the passive voice.

Passive voice is a sentence whose subject does not perform the action.

“John was attacked by wild dogs.” -passive. John is the subject, but the dogs are performing the action.

“Wild dogs attacked John.”– active. Dogs is the subject and the dogs are performing the action.

Use the zombie test to check for passive voice

Definitive guide to using passive voice

One of my favorite ways to check for passive voice is to use the “by zombies” trick. (If anyone knows the original inventor of this device, please let me know in the comments so I can credit it.) If you can insert “by zombies” after the main verb and the sentence makes sense, then you have passive voice.

John was attacked (by zombies) Passive voice. John is the subject of the sentence, but he is not performing the action “attacked.”

John attacked (by zombies) Active voice. John is the subject and he is performing the action.

However, this test is not fool-proof

John was annoyed (by zombies) Not passive.

In this instance, annoyed is functioning as an adjective. Annoyed describes John’s emotional state making this a linking verb rather than passive voice. This is an exceptional case because annoyed can be either an adjective or a verb depending on context. If the sentence were “John was annoyed by zombies,” the word’s function in that sentence is unclear. Is John feeling annoyed about zombies in general, (in which case annoyed would be an adjective and the sentence: active voice- linking verb) or are the zombies actively antagonizing poor John? (Which would indicate passive voice.)

Was/is doesn’t always mean passive voice.

Every time I see someone post on Twitter that they are removing every instance of the verb “to be” from their manuscripts, I shudder. There is nothing wrong with these verbs. They are an important part of the English language.

Active vs. passive voice and action vs. linking verbs

Most of the confusion seems to come from the close association of action verbs with active voice. These are not synonymous. Active voice is a sentence whose subject performs the action. Action verbs describe what a subject does: run, jump, stand etc.

Active voice sentences can use either action verbs or linking verbs.

John smelled the flowers. (Active voice-Action verb)
John smelled like flowers. (Active voice-Linking verb)

Notice that some verbs can function as action or linking verbs. In the first sentence John is performing the action: smelled. In the second example smelled connects to subject (John) to the words that describe him (flowers).

Linking verbs are those that connect a subject to the word or words that describe the subject.

The most common linking verbs are forms of to be: am, is, are, was, were, being, been. Other linking verbs include, appear, become, feel, grow, look, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, taste, and turn.

John is angry
John feels sad
John looks tired.

These are all active voice but use linking verbs.

Another important usage of forms of “to be” is the progressive tense.

Progressive tense combines a form of “to be” with an action verb.

John was sitting in a chair.

Eliminating the helping verb (was) in this case would change the meaning of the sentence.

John sat in the chair.

In the first example, John was already in the chair when the scene began. In the second example, John began the scene standing and then sat at some point during the scene. Blindly eliminating every “to be” verb from your manuscript is a recipe for disaster.

So why do so many writing advice blogs seem to hate the verb “to be?”

The problem comes in amateur usage.

Correctly using Passive voice

As a normal rule, passive voice should be avoided because it confuses the subject and action creating a weaker sentence. However, there are times when the use of passive voice is necessary to create a desired effect.

For example, this is the opening sentence from my query letter

18-year-old Koa only has a few months left to complete a year-long solo tour of her oceanic kingdom when she is attacked by pirates who want to steal her water dragon.

In this sentence, I chose to use passive voice to keep the focus on Koa, rather than switch to the pirates. I could have broken the sentence into two, but that would have changed the weight of the paragraph. Since the first two sentences of the query introduce the two POV characters, I wanted them to have equal weight. Giving one character more sentences would have thrown off the balance between them.

Using passive voice is acceptable if you want to keep the focus on the recipient or if the party performing the action is unimportant or unknown.

John was mugged. Passive voice. We don’t know who mugged John.
The papers were lost. Passive voice. We don’t know who lost the papers.

Correctly using Linking verbs

Overuse of linking verbs can lead to pages of static descriptions and characters who do nothing.

Writing bloggers will tell you to combat this with “active settings” or similar devices. For example,

The wall was tall. becomes The wall loomed over us.

However, active settings can also be overdone. Consider:

It was raining the day they brought John’s body home.

The amateur rewrite might try:
Rain poured from the sky the day they brought John’s body home. (Which sounds ridiculous, where else would rain come from?)
Rain soaked into our bones the day they brought John’s body home. (ick, overly dramatic and sounds like writing pa-twey!)

There’s nothing wrong with “It was raining.” It sounds natural because this is the way people actually speak. Avoiding all linking verbs will leave your prose sounding overworked and unnatural.

Correctly using Progressive tenses

Unless you are overusing this construction, there is no reason to eliminate progressive tenses from your writing.

Everyone has a demon. Mine is sitting in a beat up leather recliner smoking a menthol.

In this sentence, the demon is already sitting in the chair when the narration begins. Eliminating the “is” would change the meaning of the sentence. Again, there is nothing wrong with using forms of “to be.”

Stop demonizing was and is

Forms of the verb “to be” have a place in your writing. Progressive tenses, linking verbs, and even passive voice are tools in your writing arsenal. All three are useful and should not be thoughtlessly eliminated. Examine each instance and see if you are using them correctly, and that you are achieving the desired effect. Rather than demonizing “to be,” master its use and take your writing to the next level.

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