Passive Voice

Passive Voice

Every writer knows to avoid passive voice in his/her writing. One of The Rules. We have been beaten about the heads and shoulders with this Rule. I’ve got bruises. Wanna see?

Passive language includes ‘to be’ verbs, and so for the longest time any is, was, be, been, were, etc. that I came across, I’d rework the sentence to dash away that dastardly ‘to be’.

However, (are you ready for this?) not only are some ‘to be’ verbs necessary, sometimes passive is what you might want.

Eureka! Moment

I realized a few years ago I didn’t quite understand passive voice (versus passive verbs), and upon my Eureka! Moment, I realized most other people didn’t either (we all clubbed those ‘to be’ verbs from our writing).

I delight in learning something new, even when I thought I already knew it.

A handy little book called It was the Best of Sentences, It was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande enlightened me on my misunderstanding. (I do recommend the book, whole-heartedly. I find it far more useful than Lynne Truss’s masterpiece Eats Shoots and Leaves in the general construct of writing a good sentence.)

What’s it say? What’s it say?

I was out of my head… this book’s words popped my eyes open to the true ways of the world.

Sentence examples:
He was eating a boiled egg.
He was seventeen and a farm boy.

Note: neither sentence is in passive voice.

You could change ‘He was eating a boiled egg ‘ to ‘he ate a boiled egg,’ to ditch that ‘was’ and give it a defined moment, but they really aren’t saying the same thing. In one case the egg is in the act of being eaten, in the other case it’s already chewed up and gone.  And sometimes you just need to state a fact. He was seventeen. There’s no passivity to that, it’s just a statement.

Hint 1: Passive voice is often identified by: a ‘to be’ verb + a past participle (often an –ed verb) + a by phrase

He was smacked by The Rule upon the ears.

That is passive.

Passive Voice for 15 Points, Vanessa

The moon was watched by the rabbit.

From Dictionary.com:

Passive Voice: One of the two “voices” of verbs (see also active voice). A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb, and was thrown is in the passive voice. The same sentence cast in the active voice would be, “The pitcher threw the ball.”

Passive is when the Object of the sentence is turned into the Subject.

The monster ate the girl.
The girl was eaten by the monster.

Which one is passive? They say the same thing, but the second one is passive because the thing being acted upon (the girl = object) is made the subject of the sentence.

Hint 2: You can usually spot passives by the ‘by’ phrase, or a ‘that’, but that phrasing can be dropped, so you can’t count on it.

In many cases you don’t have a ‘subject’ and so the passive is the best choice.

Kevin was being watched.

Who was watching Kevin? We don’t’ know, but someone was! That’s exciting. The monster watching Kevin is hiding and we don’t want our audience to know Kevin is about ready to be a monster snack. To change it to active, ‘Someone was watching Kevin’, completely undermines the mood of the original passive structure.

Hope this helps.

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