I have come across so many websites that give advice on the passive voice– and I’m shocked how many writers get it wrong. Just this week, a writer was teaching (or trying to) other writers how to edit and remove passive voice from their novels– and she used an example of ACTIVE voice as what to cut! I couldn’t believe it! As most of you know, kindness, constructive, and polite comments are best on people’s blogs. No one likes to get it wrong. So I tried as politely as I could to steer her in the right direction. I think she moderated my comment. Oh, well, I tried.
Her post raised my hackles, and it got me thinking… How many writers will now take her advice and cut mercilessly every word they think is passive? This would be a travesty– leaving empty shells of a stories everywhere. Several writers wrote in to thank her!
But that won’t happen to you, because you’ve come to the right place. Side note: I never ever post on a subject unless I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have it right. You can rest assure what I tell you is the truth because I’ve done my homework– most times I’ve obsessively researched the matter.
What is the passive voice? You can’t remove it if you don’t know what it is.
Passive voice takes the transitive verb and changes the object into the subject. That’s it. That’s all we’ve feared since day one. If you’re like me, I learn better from examples than technical mumbo-jumbo. Therefore, below I will show you exactly what I mean.
Since everyone uses the poor cat in their examples I will do the same.
I kicked the cat. Active voice. Subject (I) >> transitive verb (kicked) >> object (cat).
The cat was kicked. Passive voice. Subject (cat)<< transitive verb in passive voice (was kicked).
See how the transitive verb reversed the object (cat) and made it the subject? Now we know it’s passive voice.
Let’s break it down.
The passive voice always includes a transitive verb in past particle form: “was kicked.”
Now here’s where it gets tricky…
I was kicking the cat.
This is active voice, not passive. Why? Because the verb “kicking” did not change the object “cat”. More importantly, the action is happening– “was kicking”.
Just because you see the word “was” does not necessarily make it passive. This is where a lot of confusion lies. Many writers believe that the little word “was” automatically turns your sentence into passive voice. This simply is not true. For instance the girl who wrote that post, she informed all of her followers that because the word “was” is in the sentence it automatically meant passive voice. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
Let’s try another one…
The cat was fearful.
This looks like passive voice, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Why? “Was” in this case is a linking verb.
Linking verbs are neither active or passive. They simply link to the verb (called a compliment when using linking verbs). Linking verbs walk alone, unlike helping verbs which come before another verb. i.e. “was kicking”. Linking verbs usually follow the compliment (a noun, pronoun, or adjective that refers to or describes, or means the same as, the subject).
Examples of linking verbs are:
The dog was hungry.
She seemed nervous.
John is married.
Other examples of linking verbs are: have, am, is, are, were, become, had, seemed, should be, have been.
You still with me? Let’s try another one.
I had kicked the cat.
Anyone? Anyone? Active voice. The subject “I” did not flip to the object “cat”. Anytime you see “had” or a form of “to have” as the only helper verb, you don’t have the passive voice.
There was no reason to kick the cat.
Active. “There was” is a dummy phrase (it doesn’t describe anyone or anything) used to complete the sentence. It’s neither the subject nor the object. Therefore, the object “cat” didn’t change.
The cat became angry.
“Became” is just another linking verb. The subject “cat” didn’t change. Not passive.
The cat was angry.
This looks passive, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s our old friend the linking verb. When you only have one linking verb it’s not passive. You need two linking verbs to make it passive. Of course, there are rare exceptions to every rule.
Is the passive voice always the enemy?
No. Sometimes you want to conceal who the culprit is/was, or the narrator doesn’t know. In mystery writing, thrillers, crime fiction in general, sometimes the passive voice can enhance the suspense. “The bracelets were stolen.” You wouldn’t say, “Somebody stole the bracelets.” It doesn’t give you the same punch, because the reader is concentrating on the “somebody” instead of the crime “stolen”.
For those of you who use The Elements of Style as your writing Bible– beware! Out of Strunk and White’s four examples of passive voice– three are not passive! If you don’t believe me see for yourself. Click here. It’s shocking!
Here are the three examples they used incorrectly…
“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.”
“It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had said.”
“The reason that he left for college was that his health became impaired.”
Where’s the passive voice? In which example is the subject changed to the object? None! Yet, you can find this all over the web and in study guides in classrooms.
I hope this helps you to understand the passive voice they way it helped me. You cannot rely solely on your proofreader to fix your writing. Proofreader/editing programs don’t always catch it.
Once it clicked with me everything became clear. The fog lifted. I felt like I was finally let in on a well-kept secret. And my prose become happy once again. 🙂 That’s what my hope is for you!
I purposefully didn’t get into auxiliary verbs so I wouldn’t confuse you. The best way to remember the passive voice is to make up a sentence that explains it. Here’s mine…
“Stop her! She’s trying to steal the object and disguise it as the subject!”