Note: Before I begin this post, I wanted to point you to an invaluable resource I recently found. At your leisure, please check out https://killzoneblog.com/. It’s a blog home of several best-selling authors. I’ve found some great advice there already on pacing.
Also I want to offer you a free SF sampler from Lightspeed Magazine. I received it only this morning. To download it in PDF, just click Women Destroy Science Fiction (Sampler). When the file opens, click File (upper left corner of your browser) and then click Save Page As and save it to your desktop.
Okay, on to passive voice—
There are so many misunderstandings regarding passive voice, that first I’m going to explain what it is not. Then we’ll go into what it is, along with some examples.
Back when I was copyediting, clients continually told me they’d heard that they should always
- avoid using words that end in “ing” (gerunds);
- avoid using has, have, and had
- avoid using state-of-being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been).
They’d been told, INCORRECTLY, that if they used any of those, they’d be writing in passive voice.
Wrong. Let’s take them one at a time.
Gerunds (“ing” words) have nothing whatsoever to do with passive voice. In one manuscript I edited, the author, because someone had told him to avoid “ing” words, filled the manuscript with sentences like this:
As the sheriff entered the saloon, several men stood at the bar. Other groups of men sat at tables, and still others ascended or descended the stairs.
Sentences like these can give the reader the perception that the men suddenly leapt from their chairs (“stood”) or dropped into them (“sat”) at the moment the sheriff walked in, which of course was not the case. To provide a sense that the action was ongoing, recast those sentences like this:
As the sheriff entered the saloon, several men were standing at the bar. Other groups of men were sitting at tables, and still others were ascending or descending the stairs.
Sometimes past-progressive tense (e.g., “were standing,” “were ogling,” etc.) is necessary to indicate ongoing action.
Have, Has, and Had are “helper” verbs, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with passive voice. In another manuscript, because a local writing instructor had told her using the word “had” creates passive voice, a lady wrote sentences like this:
I sat at the kitchen table and looked out over the back porch to the beach. My dad ran along the beach as a young boy, laughing and chasing seagulls. Later, a cigarette poised between his first and middle finger, he walked alongside my mom as they dreamed of the house they would build on this spot.
I would recast those sentence to read like this:
I sat at the kitchen table and looked out over the back porch to the beach. My dad had run along that beach as a young boy, laughing and chasing seagulls. Later, a cigarette poised between his first and middle finger, he walked alongside my mom as they dreamed of the house they would build on this spot.
These changes make it much easier for the reader to understand her father wasn’t actually on the beach in the present time, that she was imagining him being there much earlier in his life.
State-of-Being Verbs are part of passive voice, but they do not create passive voice by themselves.
Because state-of-being verbs do not show action and do nothing to advance the story line, I tell writers to avoid them whenever possible, but it isn’t always possible. There is no other way to describe a state of being. For example, there is no other way to write “Tucson is a large city in southeast Arizona.”
In a passive construction (passive voice), the writer lets the subject avoid responsibility for the action of the sentence by using the rightful subject of the sentence as the object of the preposition “by” in an actual or implied prepositional phrase. I call this a “by-phrase.”
Here are a couple of my old examples. The by phrase is underlined.
Passive: This event is sponsored by Arizona Mystery Writers.
Active: Arizona Mystery Writers sponsored this event.
Passive: The pizza was delivered by Harvey.
Active: Harvey delivered the pizza.
Note that even if the by-phrase is only implied, it’s still a passive construction that enables the subject of the sentence to avoid responsibility for the action of the sentence. The first example is an old one:
Passive: The package was delivered on time.
Active: UPS delivered the package on time.
The second is a living example from the New York Times a few days ago in a contemporary (July 2015) news story. According to Politico’s Dylan Byers,
“The New York Times modified its article about a potential criminal investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email account in a ‘small but significant’ way at the request of Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
See, the intent here is to use a passive construction to enable the actual subject of the sentence to avoid responsibility for the action of the sentence. As you will see, it works. This time, I’ll provide the active example first. In the passive example, I underlined the part that renders the sentence passive. Note that the by phrase is only implied:
Active: Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.
Passive: Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.
In short, if a sentence doesn’t contain BOTH a state-of-being verb and an actual or implied “by phrase,” it isn’t a passive construction.
Hope this helps. Until next time, happy writing!
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4 thoughts on “Passive Voice”
Thank you Harvey, for another well written post. I appreciate each one as it helps me become a better writer
Thanks Rich. I appreciate that. If you aren’t yet signed up for my daily journal, I recommend it as well since I often add a Topic of the Night. (grin) In fact, you’ll be seeing something from it in a few days.
I’d recommended a free basics of writing course scheduled earlier in the Phoenix area that was presented by a well known, best-selling author for a newer writer who lives up there. Actually the presenter was giving the first mini-class for SSA as they started a chapter (again) in the area. Since I’ve enjoyed the author’s earlier books, I asked my writer friend for a copy of her handouts: she’d listed all the incorrect criteria for passive voice (as you listed above). To her, it was any form of “to be,” “-ing,” and the “have, had, has” triad as causing problems. Having read at least four of her books, I know this isn’t how she writes! I was appalled at the information given to hopeful writers. Not only that, the handout advocated avoiding the boring “he said” by using non-taglines that did not produce speech for “variety.” Oh, well.
Your handout and post given here is very similar to one that I use with writers. However, I do point out there is a valid use for the passive voice. Politicians love it. Police reports are written this way. Why? In one case, politicians are suggesting, planting an idea–it distances them from actual responsibility. In criminal issues, “innocent until proven otherwise” requires passive. [“Ex: The victim was found in his kitchen, face down in a pool of blood. He had been stabbed seventy times in the chest.”]
Thanks again, Harvey, for trying to set the world straight, one writer at a time. 🙂
Hi Michaele, and thanks for the comment. Yes, indeed there are many excellent uses for passive voice, not the least of which is in fiction writing, giving a character a certain way of talking.
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