Writerly Wednesdays–Passive Voice

I am going to talk a little bit about–dum dum dum!–grammar.

Grammar really isn’t as hard and finnicky as some people fear it to be. It’s a mixture of common sense and creativity. English is not a regular language (I mean, it doesn’t follow a set of regular rules like Spanish does). It borrows and manipulates and adapts rapidly, which is why I love it. If you don’t know the rules and conventions, though, you can’t make yourself effectively understood. For that reason alone, everyone should have a firm grounding in grammar.

Ahem. Let me step down off my soap box and get down to the nitty-gritty: PASSIVE VOICE.

Depending on your knowledge of English, many of you may not be aware of what passive voice is. Those of you who have heard of it may not fully understand it. Those of you who understand it might be thinking “passive voice is the devil” right about now. So, let me give a quick primer.

What is passive voice?

First of all, “passive voice” is a grammatical term. It doesn’t have to do with word choice per se, or the passiveness of a character’s actions. Choosing a word like “went” over a possibly-more-expressive word like “sprinted” is not passive voice; it’s just poor word choice. Portraying characters who do nothing but sit around all day is not passive voice; it’s just boring.

Passive voice is making the object of a sentence the subject of a sentence. Active voice is when the actor (the one causing things to happen) is also the subject of the sentence. The thing being acted upon becomes the thing that takes the lead in the sentence.

For example, “The bear ate the fish,” is active. However, “The fish was eaten,” is passive voice. The bear is the actor, the fish is the object, and “ate” (or “eaten”) is the action. In the active sentence, the actor (the bear) is the subject (“the bear ate”), and the object (the fish) is the predicate. In the passive sentence, however, it’s flipped. The object (the fish) becomes the subject of the sentences (“the fish was”). Crucially, the thing eating the fish (the bear) is missing from the passive sentence entirely. Also, the verb shifts from “ate” to “was eaten”. I’ll talk more about all that later.

Here is Purdue Owl’s explanation of passive versus active, a pretty good one.

What is NOT passive?

Many people aren’t sure what passive voice looks like. It can be a little confusing when the sentence is more complicated than, “The bear ate the fish.” Not all constructions with “was” (or other forms of “to be”) are passive. A more interesting verb might be better in some instances, but that doesn’t make the sentence grammatically passive.

Here are a few examples of sentences that may seem at first blush to be passive, but  aren’t. They come from my own work.

  • The saw was stuck in a rough elm log.

Why not passive? Because the saw is the actor in this sentence and also the subject. “Was” here indicates a state of being.

  • Night was creeping on, making it seem later than it was.

Why not passive? Because “night” is the actor in this sentence. “Was creeping” indicates an ongoing action.

  • “I leapt from up there,” he was saying to his mother.

Why not passive? This is another instance of a non-passive use of “was”. Again, it’s to show an ongoing action. “He” is the actor and the subject.

What IS Passive?

I had a bit of a rough time finding real passive voice in my own writing. I’m not trying to toot my own horn; passive voice is something that a writer comes to notice in their own work as they become more experienced.

  • I was let down from the carriage into the street.

Why passive? Because the narrator, “I” is being acted upon (“let down”) by some unknown actor. Why did I use it? In this case, we can infer the actor is the carriage driver, and I wanted to keep the focus on the narrator.

  • He fell from his horse and was crushed.

Why passive? Well, this isn’t a great example, I admit, but the second clause is passive: The horse is the actor; it did the crushing. “He” is the object of the crushing. Put actively, it would be: “the horse crushed him”.  Why did I use it? To get the action across succinctly, I wanted to maintain “he” as the subject for both clauses. It would be clunky to say, “He fell from his horse, and the horse crushed him.” The use of a passive clause actually shortened/tightened the sentence.

  • There was some shuffling, but within minutes Ceridwen was being placed in a litter.

Why passive? Ceridwen is being acted upon; an unknown someone is placing her in a litter. Therefore, she is the object of the action but the subject of the clause. Why did I use it? The first reason is to keep the focus on Ceridwen, who might otherwise be pushed into the background. Second, I don’t necessarily want to specify who is putting Ceridwen in the litter. That can be left to the imagination since it’s unimportant. Third, the use of passive voice here indicates Ceridwen’s helplessness. In context, that’s exactly what I wanted to convey.

Passive Voice–What Is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing?

As my examples above indicate, I have been known to use passive voice from time to time (though only rarely). A lot of teachers/grammarians/adivce-givers will tell you that passive voice is “teh evuhl” and you should make the sign of the cross to ward it off. But that’s not true at all. Passive voice can be insipid and unclear (who ate the fish?), but it can also serve a purpose.

One purpose is to obfuscate. Passive voice is inherently imprecise–you’re removing the actor from the sentence, so you’re leaving out a crucial bit of information. However, that omission might serve a purpose. Sometimes, a character doesn’t know who the actor was; all they see is the result of the action. Sometimes, the character knows who did what, but the writer doesn’t want the reader to know. Of course, the imprecision of passive voice can be used for nefarious purposes. “Your comments will be considered”, for instance, really leaves the door open for interpretation (who will consider them?). But the fiction writer should use it more circumspectly; their goal isn’t to trick anyone, but to entertain them. Naturally, their aren’t too many instances where this is necessary.

Another purpose  of passive voice is to shift focus. As I mentioned above, fiction writing often flows better if the same character is the focus of a whole paragraph, scene, or chapter. Using passive voice can help you keep the focus almost entirely on that character, even if someone else is the actor. This is the case for paragraphs (the entire paragraph follows one character closely) or sentences (the sentence has only one grammatical subject). The result, as in example 2 above, can be a shorter, more direct  sentence. Again, use sparingly. There are plenty of good ways to keep the focus on a character without passive voice.

Sometimes, passive voice can be used to indicate, well, passivity. Your character might be at the receiving end of a lot of action. To vary sentence structure, you might want to throw in a passive sentence or clause. Yet again, use sparingly. You don’t want your character to come across as useless (why are we following this guy when he doesn’t do anything?).

The moral of the story is that passive voice can be used to good effect, but it’s only rarely the best option. There are usually more dynamic, interesting, and concise ways to get across the same meaning. A writer should always choose the best option, though the temptation for many writers is to use the less direct option.

Why is is Bad?

Passive voice is indirect–you’re making a circle around the action instead of attaching it directly. Passive voice is imprecise–you might confuse the reader by not telling them who is doing what. Passive voice is (usually) lugubrious–it (usually) takes more words to say the same thing.

Many new writers use more passive voice than they should. I think this is because they lack confidence. The writer isn’t quite sure of what they want to say, and passive voice can accommodate that uncertainty.

So Why Is it Vilified?

A lot of advice books will tell writers to avoid passive voice at all costs. By in large, I can’t disagree with this tactic. The reason passive voice is so vilified is because it’s so darn easy to abuse. Instead of going through a lengthy, nuanced, mind-numbing explanation like the one above, advice-givers have chosen to just ban passive voice altogether. It’s easier and more effective to say, “no passive voice!” than to say “passive voice might be useful in these instances, but only once in a while.” If the writer never uses passive voice, they’ll never abuse it.

However, once you get past grade school, it’s time to learn that there are shades of gray to these rules. English is a messy language, delightfully so. Some teachers will cling to “no passive, ever”, perhaps because they don’t know better. But the truth is a bit more interesting. Like with almost everything with creative use of the English language, you have to know the rules to break the rules.

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