Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Passive Voice: Misconceptions and Facts

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.

  1. What passive voice is.
  2. 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.


Lindsay N. Currie said...

Thank you for tackling active vs. passive. . . excellent post:)

Loralie Hall said...

I see people get this wrong so often, and I love that you've provided good, clear information about it. Thank you for helping to set the record straight ^_^

Matthew MacNish said...

Using states of being verbs (was, am, are, etc) usually does make for weaker writing, but not always. Like anything it's all about balance. If you do it, just make sure you do it on purpose and with good reason.

I've even heard of passive voice being used on purpose, but I'm not sure I could stand to read a whole novel like that.

Michelle Gregory said...

here here. good job in doing all that research. if you're going to put off writing, at least put if off with something constructive.

Michelle McLean said...

Great post :) Passive voice is something that always confused me - mostly because I always thought that if there was a "was" it was passive, but sometimes you just have to use one of those "to be" verbs in order to get the correct meaning across. Thanks for all the research! :D

Kell Andrews said...

I use "to be" verbs a lot, passive not as much. Thanks for sticking up for "to be."

Vicki Tremper said...

Woo hoo, Kristal! Thanks for validating us was users who don't use it passively! I also overuse it and try to replace as many as possible with stronger verbs. It is a constant struggle and a worthwhile one. Thanks for pointing out the difference.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thank you. After all these years, I still don't get grammar. It should be straightforward and easy, I think? But. Not for me.

Noelle Pierce said...

Thank. YOU!!!

I'd like to add The Grammar Divas to your list of links. Here's one on passive voice: http://www.grammardivas.com/yet-another-look-at-passive-voice/

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I had a beta call me out on passive construction, and one of the things I did was to search for "was"es in the manuscript. Not so much because I wanted to eradicate them, but because looking at the sentence in isolation made me truly examine whether that was the best choice for making that sentence strong and useful.

Stina said...

I was also called out on with my passives by a CP. Now I'm more conscience about them, both in my writing and in the books I read. Great post, Kristal.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Awesome article and I LOVE all the linkage! Thanks, Kristal!!

jmartinlibrary said...

I want to throw this post over my shoulder and woo it with a candlelit dinner!!! Love it. So tired of hearing writers spout rules about too many "was" words. Here's the thing: If your POV character speaks in a was-y voice, then don't sweat it! VOICE trumps "to be verbs" rules.

Unknown said...

You crafted a clear and very useful explanation of the passive voice. I agree with you: I found it impossible to cut every "was" out of the ms, some sentences ended up sounding choppy, when I read them back.

alexia said...

This is wonderful and very timely for me. Thanks!