Passive Is As the Verb Does © by Sandy Van Doren

Back in the days before digital and online became the big things they are today, WARA had an official newsletter, mailed to members every two months.  Each newsletter included a column about the technical side of writing, otherwise known as grammar and punctuation.  Member Sandy Van Doren penned the column for each edition for many years, and it became a favorite among the members.

Recently, member Nina Sipes suggested that WARA add a blog each month containing Sandy's wisdom and instruction, so we've decided to do just that.  By taking as many of Sandy's Talking Technical columns and including them as a blog post for both new writers and those who are more seasoned, we hope this mid-month topic will become a favorite of WARA members, new and old, and our visitors.


As people in all professions are wont to do, we romance wordsmiths have developed and are developing a jargon of our own.  The problem is we don't respect the buzzwords we've created.  In computerese GIGO will always be garbage in, garbage out.  In romance-ese voice, for instance, is used in several different phrases.  Since I began writing romance, I've heard voice applied in the following ways:  "How do I now what my voice is?"  "Don't use passive voice."  "Whose voice is telling the story?"

The last sentence refers to the point of view character, as in which character is telling the story.  The first sentence asks about author style.  You probably figured those out like I did.  But the middle sentence is a puzzle and creates confusion.  What is passive voice?

Voice in grammar refers to the function of a verb to show whether the subject of that verb acts or is acted upon.  If the subject acts, it's called the verb's active voice.  When the action is passed back to the subject or the subject receives the results, the voice of the verb is passive.

Sentences written in passive voice usually have certain characteristics besides the subject being the receiver of the action.  A prepositional phrase with the word "by" and containing the perpetrator of the action can follow the verb.  The complete verb is usually some form of to be along with the past participle of the main verb. 

Classic passive voice ~ The rock song was written by a ninety-year-old woman.
Breakdown of sentence ~
The Rock [song]        [was]      [written]      [by a nintely-year-old woman].
              [Subject]     [to be]   [main verb]          [prepositional phrase]

Okay, how do you know that written is the past particple?  Do you remember the wonderful exercise from elementary school, verb congugation?  It went like this for the verb to love:  I love, I loved, I have loved.  That breaks down to the present tense, the past tense, and, you guessed it, the past participle.  (By the way, to love is the present infinitive of the verb.)  In the example the verb is to write and conjugates:  write, wrote, written.

     More examples of passive voice:
Without prepositional phrase ~
Our car was stolen yesterday.
Trash had been thrown about.
I am being shoved forward.
The table is cleaned every day.

With a prepositional phrase ~
The song would have been performed for the first time by her grandson's band.
The book will be used by adult reading classes.

Exercise your knowledge and "diagram" these two sentences as I did the first example.  Now, conjugate each main verb.  Want more practice recognizing passive voice?  Look in the newspaper, a magazine, a novel.  Or go to your current work-in-progress.

With the basics having been covered, I'm going to commit blasphemy:  Passive voice is not wrong or bad.  Strunk and White refer to passive voice as "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary."

Convenient?  Necessary?  For what?

Take two of my examples.  (1) The rock song was written by a ninety-year-old woman.  Let's switch this sentence into active voice:  A ninety-year-old woman wrote the rock song.  That works, doesn't it?

Now rework this sentence (2) Our car was stolen yesterday.  Oops, did I hear you say you can't find who stole the car?  Not knowing who acted is one reason to use passive voice.

Another time would be when the agent of the action is not important:  Jim Bob Doe was paroled.

Other instances occur when you want to emphasize or direct attention to the receiver of the action.  Trash has been thrown about.

With the foregoing pro-passive voice language I've written, you're probably wondering why some writers/editors/agents/grammar books treat passive voice as Public Enemy #1.  Their view is valid if modified by the above arguments.  Consider these sentences:

Tomatoes and strawberries were harvested by migrant workers.
Migrant workers harvested tomatoes and strawberries.
The hiring is done by the secretary.
The secretary does the hiring.

Which ones are easier to picture?  Have more vigor?  Show rather than tell?  There you have it:  Active voice is vivid and places the reader in the story better than passive voice.  Or put another way, passive voice is "action once removed" from the reader.

That might work for academia but the buyers of fiction want to be right in the middle, not one step back.

Now, I have some words of caution:  Not all to be verbs are equal.  Verbs come in two types, transitive and intransitive.  Transitive verbs transfer the action; intransitive link or indicate of passive voice.  Obviously, in all my examples the verbs are transitive.  Can you come up with a few examples of intransitive?

I'm asleep.  She is beautiful.  Here's the book.  The dog was a dirty mess.

This means not every use of a to be verb is indicative of passive voice.  In the above examples none of the subjects are acted upon, nor do they act.  They simply are.  We see them in a state of being.  We see them described.

If your word processing program has a grammar check, use it to ferret out passive voice.  Don't automatically eliminate it.  Instead, make conscious decisions to leave it when the passive voice is more appropriate to what you want to say.

Act to be passive.  It's your right, your duty, as the sentence's creator.

(Thank you, Sandy, from all your WARA friends.)