Let me start off by saying one thing: I am not a grammar expert, by any means. I am merely a writer that wants to understand the words and structure of her craft.
I’ve come a long ways with grammar. When I first started my writing journey, I was ten years out of college. The most writing I’d done, at that point, was the term papers and small creative writing projects in high school…on a typewriter. Yes, my friends, THAT long ago. So after writing the opening pages of my first draft, I put up a sample on a well-known writing forum for review. Now, I thought I’d edited it to perfection. After some ripping apart by strangers, one of them stated, “Well, if you had edited it better before putting it up….”
“What? I edited it. A lot”
“Oh really? Well, I figured that you hadn’t since you used the semicolon improperly four times on the first page.”
My mouth dropped open. I quickly looked up the proper function of a semicolon. And the stranger was quite right about my error. I learned that I had a long ways to go in the grammar department.
Fast forward to several months back. I received a terrific critique marking my excessive use of passive voice. I had, in fact, used “was” too much. Instead of changing them all, I decided to do some research on passive voice. Passive voice is one of those things I’d never fully understood. And, like my semicolon days, I wanted not just to change it, but I wanted to understand it.
My research helped me to understand a couple of things.
- What passive voice is.
- What passive voice isn't.
Here is what my book, Nitty-Gritty Grammar, has to say about Active and Passive Voice.
Verbs can be active or passive. Active verbs put the person or thing doing the action in charge. With the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
So passive voice is not just what verb you use. Passive voice is sentence construction.
Here are some other definitions online of passive voice (I will include links at the bottom of this post).
- A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.
- We call a verb passive when a writer uses a "to be" verb to place the focus on the object of the sentence, rather than on the subject.
- Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action.
- Passive voice should not be confused with verb tense.
Verb tense is action + time. What happened and when.
Passive/active voice is the subject in relation to the action. Is the subject the doer or the recipient of the action
- A form of the verb “To be” is combined with a past participle to form the passive.
- In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, "Steve loves Amy," I would say, "Amy is loved by Steve." The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve's love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy. If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.
So I want to make this point very clear to all the writers out there who have a wrong concept of passive voice. Passive voice has to do with the construction of the sentence, not just on the use of “to be” verbs.
Was is NOT a passive verb.
Let me say that again.
Using WAS does not necessarily make the sentence passive.
Here are a few examples of passive and active sentences.
Active: The boy threw the ball.
Passive: The ball was thrown by the boy.
Active: I will invite Joe to the party.
Passive: Joe will be invited to the party by me.
There are tons of examples on the following links. I recommend reading them all, so we can veto this “was” misconception once and for all. These are only a few references to the truth of passive/active voice.
Now, before you all come at me with pitch forks and anti “was” signs, I do want to clarify that even though using the forms of “to be” doesn’t necessarily constitute passive voice, it can signify lazy writing. I highly recommend cutting out as many “was” words as you can, to make a more descriptive and unique passage.
However, I will say that I read a book recently, by one of my favorite authors. He/she is even on the NY Times bestseller list…multiple times. In the first four sentences, the author used “was” six times (none of them in a passive construction). It goes to prove that, even though cutting down on “to be” verbs are helpful, the most important thing to do in writing is to tell a damn good story.