Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship — a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉
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8 Comments

Filed under Sentence structure

8 responses to “Clarifying What’s Passive

  1. Finally! A crystal clear explanation of Passive Voice. Thank you sooooo much! I’ll share this with my writing groups.

  2. I appreciate you sharing this, Janet. So glad you found it to be clear.

    Becky

  3. I smiled the entire time I read this, thinking, “Yes! She nailed it!” As a former (and as-long-as-I’m-alive) English teacher, I find myself frustrated on behalf of the misunderstood passive voice. Occasionally, I need to express that my characters are in the midst of a continuous action, and I choose to use “was” plus a present participle. Seldom, to be sure, but when I must, I must. I’m always surprised when someone labels it passive. I’ll spread the word about your post!

  4. Bethany, I was an English teacher for years too! 😀

    Yes, the poor passive is much maligned for constructions not it’s own. And present participles are discriminated against because they are accused of being what they are not. (Notice the passive in those sentences. 😉 )

    Thank you for your comment and for letting others know about this post.

    Becky

  5. jazzbychas

    I think that any sentence with a form of ‘BE’ in it is describing, which comes very close to ‘telling’ (as opposed to showing). This is why these, even when they are legitimately not ‘passive’ should be used sparingly, if at all.

  6. jazzbychas

    And sentence with the verb ‘BE’ in it is describing the situation, which borders closely on ‘telling’ (as opposed to ‘showing’). It would be advisable to use such sentences (even those that are not legitimately ‘passive’) sparingly.

  7. Jazzbychas, I only approved your first comment–hope that’s OK with you. I suspect you didn’t realize moderation was on.

    Certainly sentences with “be” verbs aren’t active in the same sense that sentences with action verbs are. But there are times such sentences are appropriate and necessary. (Case in point, see the previous sentence. 😉 ) All writing uses some amount of telling, and this is as it should be. A story that only shows would end up being long and tedious.

    These are important issues and ones I don’t think writers can discuss adequately if they are laboring under the misunderstanding of what passive verbs actually are.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Becky

  8. Pingback: Replacing The Passive | Rewrite, Reword, Rework

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